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Ask the master gardener: It’s always best to transplant a well-watered plant, not a dry one

By: Trish Grenfell Placer County Master Gardener
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Question: I am someone whose eyes are too large for her planting area and I sometimes can’t figure out where to put my plant purchases. Time passes and I often forget to water these pots since they are not on my irrigation system. When planting day finally arrives, they are often half dead. Should I just toss or do you have any ideas for saving them? Answer: You are not alone. Most of us do overzealous buying from time to time. And it is so easy to forget to water. As a result, you might find the potting medium (soil) so dry that it has started to pull away from the pot rim. The first thing to do is rewet all that soil and irrigate the plant’s roots before transplanting. Remember that it’s always best to transplant a well-watered plant, not a dry one. If you have ever tried simply pouring water over super dry planting soil in a container, you probably saw the water run down the sides of the pot and right out the bottom. Obviously, the plant roots and the potting soil were not absorbing the water. Instead, submerge the entire pot. Just place it in a bucket or similar container and add water until it rises over the rim of the pot and covers the soil surface. You may need to place some small stones on top of the soil to keep it from bobbing up. I would leave it in the water for several hours, making sure the root ball and planting medium are saturated. Then remove the pot from the bucket and let it drain well. Now it is ready to transplant. An alternate method to thoroughly wet the root ball is to place the plant container in a shallow bowl. Add water to about two-thirds up the side of the container, and allow to soak for three to four hours. The water will automatically move into the root ball slowly and evenly through capillary action. Remember NOT to fertilize a dry plant. And it is best to hold off fertilizing immediately after transplanting, even if the plant was thoroughly watered. It is likely the root tips have been lost if the pot went bone dry and they will take some time to recover. Fertilizing may harm the newly forming roots. And even if the potted plant never experienced severe drought before transplanting, it is a good idea to give those roots a week or so to acclimate to their new surroundings before applying fertilizer. Have gardening questions? Call the Master Gardener hotline at (530) 889-7388.