Nursery, please, nursery. DPR at customer service. That distressing call for a DPR (dead plant return) comes through my two-way radio several times a day in spring and early summer.
With anticipation and hope, someone spent hard-earned cash for a tree or shrub and took the time and energy to plant it. Now the customer is back, wondering what went wrong. We ask customers a series of questions to find the source of the problem. The answers generally lead to one of several reasons for the demise of the plants.
Location, location, location. In our cold-winter climate, newly planted evergreen trees and shrubs need some protection from the frigid western winds and drying afternoon sun. Until their roots have grown wide and deep, these trees and shrubs can’t take up enough water after the ground freezes to replenish the moisture lost to sun and wind. By spring, the foliage is brown and the stems may be dead or dying. Planting sensitive shrubs on the eastern or northern side of a building, wrapping them in burlap, or spraying with an anti-dessicant helps protect them.
In too deep. Planting depth is critical to plant success. Digging the planting hole too deep is probably the most common — and most easily preventable — mistake we see. The root flare, which is the place where the stem or trunk meets the roots, must be planted at or evenly slightly above ground level. Roots need oxygen and they’ll smother if planted too far below the surface. The root flare isn’t always at the soil surface in the container or root ball in the nursery, so it’s important to find it and adjust the hole depth before setting the plant in the ground.
Smothered in mulch. Mulch is great for retaining soil moisture and keeping weeds under control. But too much of a good thing can be bad for the plants it’s meant to protect. Mulch should be pulled from the base of plants. In most cases, an inch or two of depth is sufficent. Thick mulch piled up around the trunk is the equivalent of planting too deep.
Water assistance. Newly planted trees and shrubs need lots of water during the first season because they usually have more leafy growth than their developing root systems can easily support. Even a small shrub may need a gallon of water a day to keep the soil moist around its roots. Larger trees can use 10 gallons or more daily. To make watering easier, consider using watering rings or soaker hoses, which ensure the kind of slow, even watering that new trees and shrubs need.
Environmental stress. Road salt, poorly drained soil, too much sun/shade, mechanical damage, and lack of hardiness also take a toll. Our nursery sells plants that are hardy to USDA Zone 5, but many of our customers live in colder Zones 4 and 3. We do our best to educate customers, but every year we see dead hybrid tea roses and butterfly bushes coming back from the coldest mountain regions of Vermont.
Preventing DPRs is one of our most important jobs when we work with customers. We work hard to help match the customers’ desires with the best plants for their site and growing conditions, and send them home with complete instructions. Next spring, we hope to see them come back with reports of success!