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Part Of The High Country Gardens Waterwise Plants Learning Center

How To Plant Waterwise Perennials

Ready to plant a resilient, drought-tolerant garden? At High Country Gardens, we've been growing perennials in challenging soils and climates for over 30 years. Read on for helpful tips for establishing waterwise plants.

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Plants With A Purpose: Why Waterwise Plants?

At a glance, planting can seem simple. Unpack your young plants from their box, prepare your soil for planting, tuck your perennials into the ground, water thoroughly, apply mulch, and then wait for your plants to take off. However, gardening in the rugged growing conditions of the West takes extra care and consideration to ensure that your new transplants thrive. 

Read more in our guide for advice from the experts at High Country Gardens for planting your new waterwise perennials. 

Did you know? When your order arrives, you'll find these details and more in our printed 16-page Planting Guide, included free with every plant order.

Planting In Spring Or Fall

At High Country Gardens, we ship plants in spring and fall at the right time to plant in your zone. Both seasons are popular planting times. In spring, after a long cold winter, that itch to dig in the garden and start planting runs strong, and you have the opportunity to watch your plants mature as the growing season progresses. In fall, cooling temperatures and warm soil also provide ideal conditions for establishing new transplants. 

As avid gardeners ourselves, we take advantage of both seasons for planting, since there is always something new we want to add to our yard. 

Here are tips for planting in each season: 

When You Receive Your Plants

  1. Unbox — Remove plants from the shipping box and bags immediately.
  2. Hydrate — Check to see if the soil is moist. If a bit dry, set the plants in a tray, water thoroughly, and allow excess water to drain off.
  3. Acclimate — Keep plants in the shade for a few days before planting. Place in the sun for a brief period the first day and a bit longer on subsequent days. If you're not going to plant outside for several weeks or more, check the plant's roots to see if they are filling the pot. If they are, it might be a good idea to plant it temporarily in a pot one size larger. If planting in a larger pot make sure to use a good quality potting soil.
  4. Plant — For best success, plant right away. For best success, plant perennials immediately after receiving them. (If you are unable to transplant right away: place the plants outdoors in a spot receiving morning sun only; too much afternoon sun can dry out the plants. Check soil moisture daily, but water thoroughly only when needed. To keep the soil moist but not soggy. Plant no later than 7-10 days after you receive your plants.)


Care For Dormant Plants

Certain perennials wake up from dormancy much later in spring than others. These include Asclepias (Milkweed), Ceratostigma (Hardy Plumbago), Chilopsis (Desert Willow), Coreopsis (Tickseed), Echinacea (Coneflowers), Helianthus (Maximilian’s Sunflower), Perovskia (Russian Sage), and others.

Please handle dormant plants carefully. You’ll likely see little to no top growth when the plants arrive – that's normal and not a cause for concern. You will have the best success if you plant dormant plants in your garden right away! Your plants will do best if they can “wake up” in the garden.

When you order from High Country Gardens, we guarantee that you will receive the hardiest plants, bulbs, and seeds available, packed with care and ready to thrive in your garden.

Prepare Your Site & Start With Healthy Soil

Good soil preparation is essential to successful gardening. Healthy living soil should have good tilth, nutrient content, and a viable population of beneficial microorganisms. 

Soil Fertility

Waterwise and xeric plants require low-fertility soil, meaning that these plants dislike soil that is rich in organic matter. For those plants, we recommend using natural and organic ingredients to prepare the soil and maintain soil fertility, such as Superthrive Vitamin/Hormone Plant Growth Stimulant, Yum Yum Mix®, or Soil Mender Mineral Boost Fertilizer. 

In gardens with richer soils (typically east of the Mississippi or in the Pacific Northwest): Many High Country Gardens plants are native to alkaline soils. When planted beyond their native home, they may need soil acidity reduced. A soil test can confirm your ph levels. If needed, add lime to bring soil ph up to neutral, ph7.

Soil Drainage

Soil drainage is an important factor to consider when preparing your site, because xeric plants require well-draining soil. This is especially true in areas with 30 inches or more rainfall per year. The essential element in well-drained soil is oxygen, which is just as important as water in growing healthy plants. Waterlogged soil does not drain well and is anaerobic (oxygen deficient) resulting in drowned and rotted roots. In addition to enabling more oxygen to get to plant roots, there is another great benefit to improving drainage: it takes more heat to warm up water than it does to warm up soil, so you can count on an earlier start to your planting season if your water soil isn't waterlogged.

If you have water-retentive soils in your yard (clay, clay-loam, or silty clay), they will need to be amended with very coarse sand or gravel to improve drainage. The more rainfall your region receives, the more drainage material should be mixed into the soil. 

Water Retention In Arid Western Climates

To improve water retention and arid climates, it's beneficial to inoculate the soil with Plant Success Soluble Mycorrhizal Root Inoculant or add water-holding granules such as Soil Moist to increase plants' ability to absorb water and nutrients. These amendments will support your plant during drought conditions.

When planting xeric plants, use only Yum Yum Mix®, Soil Mender Mineral Boost Fertilizer, and Soil Mender Rock Phosphate. Don't use compost when planting or fertilizing waterwise plants, since with continued use this can make the soil too rich and water retentive.

Expert Steps For Transplanting

These planting instructions are for potted perennial plants. if you are growing cacti, agave, or dormant plants, please see our detailed planting guide for the needs of those unique plants:

1. Remove Plant From Pot

  • To remove a plant from its pot gently squeeze the sides of the pot to loosen the soil.
  • With one hand over the plant, turn the pot upside down, and with the thumb of your free hand, push against the bottom of the pot. This should free the root ball from the sides of the pot and let the plant drop out. 
  • If roots growing through the pot are preventing removal, cut or tear them off. This will not harm the plant.
  • DO NOT pull plants from their pots by tugging on the leaves and stems!

2. Rough Out The Roots

  • The exception to this step is cacti, agave, and dormant plants.
  • Before placing a pot-grown plant into the ground, be sure to prepare the roots for planting. This will ensure that the roots grow widely and vigorously into the surrounding soil, not continue to grow in the shape of the pot. New roots will grow from each area you cut when roughing out the roots, giving your new plant a strong foundation for years of healthy growth.
  • Use a sharp corner of the plastic plant tag or a pocket knife to make vertical cuts, top to bottom, several on each side of the root ball, and several cuts across the base. Cut into the root ball about a quarter inch deep.
  • With your fingers, gently rough out the roots side and bottom, so that the soil ball has a fuzzy surface.

3. Place In Planting Hole

  • Plants need plenty of room to spread their roots. Make the hole several times wider than the root ball, but no deeper than the existing soil level. 
  • Set the plant down into the hole, being careful just set the crown of the root ball even with the surrounding ground. 
  • Firm the soil gently into place with your fingers. Don't pack the soil too tightly with a tool handle, or water the soil as you are planting, as you can suffocate plant roots.
  • When backfilling soil, create a ridge of soil about 6 inches away from the plant around the planting hole. Gently create a shallow indentation about ½ inch below grade around the base of the plant to help hold water and encourage it to soak down to the plant roots. (See diagram below)

4. Water Thoroughly 

  • Water several times to settle the soil in the planting hole, and thoroughly soak the soil surrounding the planting hole. This will encourage the roots to grow.
  • To help plants establish roots quicker, and to avoid transplant shock. we recommend using our Root Stimulator Combo Pack with Saltwater Farm’s SeaCom-PGR and SuperThrive®. Add to water when planting.

Read the next section for more watering advice.

Watering New Plants

For new transplants, even xeric plants, regular watering during the first growing season is essential to grow a strong, deep root system. But, you don’t want to water too much and stress young plants.

By watering deeply, for longer periods of time, and allowing water to soak deep into the ground, you will encourage plants to grow deep root systems; this helps them become more resilient and drought tolerant in the long run.

Frequent, shallow watering means that roots will be shallow too, lending to them being too hot and dry. Watering deeply in the first season when soil is dry, and as needed in long stretches of drought for established plants, will save water in the long run when you have established waterwise plants. 

For more advice on watering efficiently, see our guide: 

Mulching New Plants

y spreading mulch, whether a natural material such as bark or pine needles, or crushed gravel, over the surface of your soil, you can slow evaporation, discourage weeds, and help your plants to thrive.

Add a 1-2 inch layer of mulch around plants, leaving a space of at least 1 inch around the base of your plant, to allow proper airflow and prevent rotting due to excessive moisture.

Mulching In Western Climates

In these dry, arid regions, mulching is an essential gardening technique for waterwise plants, native plants, and rock garden plants.  blanketing the top of the soil with mulch materials improves plant growth and flowering. it will also:

  • Protect shallow plant roots from temperature extremes in summer and winter
  • Suppress weed growth
  • Add valuable organic matter to the soil as it breaks down
  • Help to capture rainwater by preventing rapid runoff from impermeable soil surfaces. Gravel is particularly good for water harvesting.

The best mulching materials for xeric plants, waterwise plants, cacti, and succulents:

  • Crushed gravel
  • Stone
  • Crushed nut shells
  • Pine needles
  • DO NOT use moisture-absorbing materials like compost or bark, as this will cause rot.


Mulching In The East, Midwest & Pacific Northwest

In high rainfall regions, mulching is not usually needed to conserve water, and is not usually recommended in areas where slugs may be a problem. However, mulch has plenty of benefits, including protecting your soil from extreme temperatures, adding nutrients and organic matter to improve soil health, and helping to reduce weeds.

The best mulching materials for hardy perennials, ground covers, ornamental grasses, and shrubs with average moisture requirements:

  • textured organic compost
  • bark or bark chips
  • nut shells
  • pine needles

Patience As Your New Perennials Establish

Great work, gardener, your plants are now transplanted and ready to take off in your garden. The next step is patience, following nature’s timeline as each plant matures. Patience, good soil preparation, and attention to new transplants will reward you with much pleasure and beauty over the years. 

In general, perennial plants take about three years to reach their full maturity. The saying goes, plants “Sleep, creep, leap.”

  • This means in the first year they “sleep” and focus their growth below ground in their root systems.
  • In the second year they “creep” and start to fill out. Some perennials will start to bloom.
  • In the third year they “leap” and reach their full mature size.

This is, of course, a generalization, and each plant has its own growth rate. Some will mature faster while others will mature more slowly. Enjoy the process and get to know each of the unique plants in your garden as they grow.

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Explore Our Palette Of Waterwise Perennials

Now that you know how to transplant perennials like an expert, shop waterwise plants for your sustainable yard transformation.