Prepare ground/plants for sowing & planting

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Last updated July 2014

1. Getting the ground ready for growing
2. Seeds’ needs
3. Soil preparation for sowing
4. Preparing ground for a lawn (seed or turf)
5. Lawn alternatives for slopes
6. Preparing ground for planting
7. Tender, half-hardy or hardy plants – definitions
8. Advance preparation of plants for planting
9. Plant preparation at planting time

1. Getting the ground ready for growing

Give your plants a head start by giving them the ground they need.

For great growth, you need to look after the plants’ roots, which means preparing the ground well before sowing or planting.

Important!

The first thing you need to deal with is any weed problem. If the garden is bare, wait for weeds to grow to find out what’s lurking. Then you can decide how to tackle them.

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Perennial weeds are the main problem because these grow back time and time again, even though you’ve cut the leaves off with a hoe or burnt them off with a flame. You can try digging them out, but all it takes is one tiny piece of root to remain in the soil and the weed will grow again. Please read our guide – Control weeds – quick guide to the basics, which includes some information on chemical solutions (ie herbicides) in section 4 – completely overgrown areas – weed control).

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2. Seeds’ needs

Seeds germinate once they become moist, but they need the correct temperature and light conditions too.

Soil shouldn’t become waterlogged or dry out.

The root grows first and has to be able to push through the soil while absorbing water and nutrients via the fine root hairs. So the seedbed shouldn’t be rock solid (from trampling or baking hot weather), or cloddy, because the roots can’t make contact with the soil but are left in the air spaces between.

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3. Soil preparation for sowing

All soils benefit from adding some fully rotted organic material eg garden compost, manure, bark chippings, leaf mould or similar. It must be well rotted because the decomposition process uses nitrogen so if you use unrotted material, the continuing process robs the plants of available nitrogen in the soil. Also if garden compost or manure is not well rotted, then it can transfer weed seeds and roots to your garden, creating a maintenance problem later.

Organic matter is wonderful because it helps the soil hold water, but also helps with drainage, so reduces waterlogging (which drowns roots). Fork in the material, or, if you’re not planning to sow seeds for some time, spread it on the surface for the worms to take down.

Clay soils are best dug or forked over in the autumn so that the frosts can break the clods down and make it easy to make a seedbed of level and crumbly soil in the spring.

Whatever the soil, when it is dry, just before sowing, rake the ground level and remove large stones, then tread over the area on the balls of your feet to firm the soil before raking again to remove bootprints and level the surface.



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4. Preparing ground for a lawn (seed or turf)

If the area has been neglected, the first thing you need to deal with is any weed problem.

Perennial plants (weeds or unwanted garden plants) will grow back time and time again, even if you’ve cut the leaves off with a hoe or burnt them off with a flame gun. You can try digging them out, but all it takes is one tiny piece of root to remain in the soil and the weed will grow again. For dealing with this problem, look at our article ‘Control weeds – quick guide to the basics’, which includes information on chemical solutions (ie herbicides) in section 4 (Completely overgrown areas – weed control).

If you are planning a fine lawn (with the type of grass used for golf and bowling greens), you will have to ensure that all unwanted plants (including grassy weeds), are eliminated, to keep the fine turf fine. For everyday lawns, just be sure you’ve removed dandelion roots and other nuisance weeds that produce flat rosettes of leaves and spoil the look of a lawn.

Grass doesn’t root very deeply, so you don’t have to dig down far – you’re not preparing a vegetable patch. Just ensure that the ground is not rock-hard beneath the lawn. Aim for a firm, but not compacted, even surface, with good drainage from the top inch or so, ensuring that the lawn won’t be under water after heavy rain.

Dig the ground over when it is reasonably dry (if a lot of soil clings to your boots, it’s too wet). After digging, rake the ground level, raking off stones as you go. To firm up the surface, tread the ground on your heels, shuffling up and down in one direction, raking the ground again, then treading again at right angles to the first direction, before raking level again. The treading produces a firm surface for the lawn; the raking provides a fine tilth for grass seed to germinate in and for turf roots to grow into.

Digging in large amounts organic material is not a good idea because it continues to rot and shrink, making the ground above uneven. Uneven ground means the mower misses the dips and scalps the bumps, which isn’t pretty.

Once the ground is prepared, the last job is to apply a slow-release balanced fertiliser (N:P:K ratio of 7:7:7) such as Rolawn Direct’s. Do this about a week before you plan to sow or turf, and incorporate it into the soil by raking (unless the rain does the job for you). If left on the surface, fertiliser can damage new roots.



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Delay sowing or turfing until a dry day with mild and wet weather forecast – usually March/April or August – but don’t rely on the calendar alone – a wet summer is ideal for establishing a lawn.

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5. Lawn alternatives for slopes

A lawn needs an even surface for easy mowing and a flat lawn is easier to care for than one on a slope. Steep slopes are dangerous to mow with powered equipment, and petrol mowers are limited to slopes of 30 degrees or less, unless they have a 2-stroke engine or a special 4-stroke engine fitted.

But a 30-degree slope is no fun to mow, so consider planting it up with something else. For example, thrift, which remains neat, looks like grass from a distance and has the bonus of pink flowers. Or heathers, which are available in a range of leaf and flower colours, but need shearing annually to keep tidy.

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6. Preparing ground for planting

If planting a large area, ensure that the ground levels are right first and that waterlogging doesn’t occur. Major weed problems should be sorted out too (read our article: Control weeds – quick guide to the basics).

If the soil is soft from cultivation, tread the whole area and rake to restore the required level. Don’t plant into loose soil. Dig a large enough hole to enable the roots to be spread out evenly and loosen the soil at the base of the hole so that water will not collect there and kill the plant.

If planting in spring and a dry spell is likely, fill the planting hole with water and allow it to drain away just before planting.

To get plants established in their first year or so, place a watering tube (any pipe or tube will do) vertically in the planting hole, with the top above ground level. Then add water to the tube so that you water the roots, not the ground.

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7. Tender, half-hardy or hardy plants – definitions

Tender plants are those which cannot survive our winters – the roots and tops will be killed. Some survive winters in the south, or mild winters if growing in sheltered conditions.

Half-hardy plants are tender plants. Most summer bedding is half-hardy or treated as such ie sown in spring, grown on under protection and planted out after the last frosts have finished.

Hardy plants survive our winters. Hardy plants become half-hardy if grown under cover where they are protected from the cold and winds.

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8. Advance preparation of plants for planting

First, harden off tender or half-hardy plants over a couple of weeks before planting. Do this by putting plants outside during mild days, bringing them in at night if cold is forecast, then leaving out during mild nights, and finally planting outside (once frosts have finished, in the case of tender plants).

Then, thoroughly soak the plant roots for several hours before planting out to give them a good start.

We were going to write more detailed guides about hardening off and planting different types of plant, but Crocus have done it already, so for further advice and tips on planting shrubs, trees, hedges, climbers, perennials, bulbs, bedding or your pond, take a look at their how to plant successfully.

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9. Plant preparation at planting time

Bare-rooted plants may need root pruning to encourage growth in the right direction – remove roots that are growing back on themselves or encircling the plant.

Containerised plants should have some roots teased out of the compost. Any thicker roots that are encircling the plant should be teased out or pruned off, so that the plant roots into a larger area in the ground.

Root-balled plants do not need the hessian sacking removing as the roots will grow through it – just cut a few slits in the fabric, untie the knot around the stem, and cut off the excess fabric.

For more details on different types of plant, including shrubs, trees, hedges, climbers, perennials, bulbs, bedding or your pond, take a look at Crocus’ guides toplanting successfully.

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