Episode 54 – Rocking the Establishment: what it means to get a plant “established”

Ground Breaking Banter - Rick

A listener recently wrote and asked:

“Can you discuss the basics of getting a plant established? It’s fun to select new plants but if they don’t make it through the first winter it can be discouraging causing one to trim back expectations by planting less in the coming season. For those of us learning as we go, getting plants established can turn out to be a bit of a steep learning curve. (and expensive).”

Thanks for the great suggestion!  For plants establishment means first put the right plant in the right place. 

When establishing a plant you think “down and out” – no, not depressed, but how the roots grow. Roots are like a house foundation, a good foundation needs to be established. A plant is considered “established” when the roots have grown into the surrounding soil and there is a bit of new growth on branch tips. Generally speaking, a plant is considered established after 2-4 years in the ground, depending on the variety and the growing conditions. 

My gardening skills have astounded
by beautiful plants I’m surrounded
Don’t tell me I got lucky
because my plants are plucky
We just make sure we’re well grounded.

Most plant growth occurs at the tips of branches and the tips of roots. However, while the crown of a plant is usually surrounded by open air, roots need a source of oxygen in the soil in order to grow. In the ground, air and water are held in little pockets called soil pores. If the soil is dense and compacted (with no soil pores), there will not be enough oxygen available for respiration. Too much water in the soil will also limit the amount of oxygen the roots can take in.

Think about trees as an example of “establishment.” Tree roots grow best when they have sufficient growing space and non-compacted soil with enough oxygen and water. The depth that oxygen can reach depends on the type of soil and amount of compaction, and the most oxygen will be found near the surface of the soil. For this reason, roots tend to grow right under the surface. Many people imagine tree roots as a mirror image of the branches, but this is a common misconception. Tree roots actually grow outward horizontally from the base of the tree. To demonstrate for our YouTube viewers we use the wine glass example.

Roots become smaller as they grow outward from the root collar (base of the trunk). Buttress roots right near the trunk help stabilize the tree. Then lateral roots spread out at their tips becoming small, ephemeral absorbing roots soaking up water and oxygen and other nutrients. These roots are opportunistic – they will grow wherever the conditions are suitable, and will die back if resources are not available.

You can buy a beautiful car but if there is no engine under the hood it’s not going to function well. Roots function to anchor plants to the soil, as storage organs, and to absorb and conduct water and essential minerals from the soil. 

Pruning and pinching can be an important element of establishment. Staking and support. When moving a plant the top growth should be proportional to the root system. 

The establishment period is the time during which a new plant is developing its root system. When getting established, plants need to be checked frequently, watered often and watched for signs of stress. Establishment can take one year for perennials and two or more years for woody plants or trees. The most common reason for plant loss during the establishment period is improper watering. Shallow or uneven watering is dangerous for plants and predisposes them to disease. 

There is no doubt that mycorrhizae fungi play an important role in plant growth. Their symbiotic relationship with plants helps them access water and nutrients. Mycorrhizal fungi (mycorrhiza) are found in all soil where plants grow. They form large networks of fine filamentous growth throughout the soil. If your soil is healthy with organic material it should have beneficial fungi. Don’t assume just because you added mycorrhizae supplements they are alive (storage issues) and maybe your soil (sandy) can’t support it. 


With the theme of what it takes to get a plant established, I was split on today’s plant on trial: do I choose one that’s fast to get established, or one that’s slow to get established? Ultimately, though, I decided since we recently covered ‘Sweet Summer Love’ clematis, which is definitively in the “slow to get established” category that we’d cover something that’s fast, so I chose Kodiak Orange diervilla.

This colorful native shrub comes by the Kodiak name earnestly – it’s super tough and durable, which is one of the reasons it established quickly after planting. I once transplanted one in the middle of summer and it barely missed a beat because the roots regrew so quickly. Now, I don’t necessarily recommend that you do that, but if you were to need to, you’d have little to worry about. It’s not the showiest of the plants that we offer, but it brings a really nice quiet neatness to the garden and is colorful without being overly flashy.

Who:  Kodiak Orange diervilla was developed by Mike Uchneat. You may not know his name, but you certainly know some of the other plants we helped develop: namely, dragon wing begonia and Wave petunias. He’s also done some important work on developing impatiens that are resistant to downy mildew, the disease that took these plants out of many gardens a few years ago. Thanks to his work, they’re back!

How to grow: The fact that Kodiak Orange diervilla is quick to establish is a good indicator that it’s also super easy to grow. It has a durable, vigorous root system that it grows quickly even under challenging conditions – though, of course, for best results, avoid trying to challenge it. Its root system is slightly suckering, but it doesn’t really become a nuisance, as most of the suckering just widens the plant. So be sure to follow the tag and expect it to reach that 4′ width. As far as sun, it can grow in sun or shade, but at least some sun each day is a good idea for best color and best flowering, as well as attracting the pollinating insects (especially native bumblebees) who enjoy the flowers. Pruning diervilla is generally best done in spring, though it can be trimmed through the season if you want. It’s not strictly necessary, but some may prefer the neater, tighter look of a pruned plant than just letting it do its thing.

If you’d like to add Kodiak Orange diervilla – or any of the 320+ Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs – to your garden or landscape, you’ll find a list of local retailers here

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As for your apples, it turns out that you are not alone – many people report issues growing Wolf River apples, going years without seeing flowers and thereby fruit. Even though the plant itself was developed in Wisconsin and is known to be very hardy, that doesn’t necessarily mean that its flower buds are. I think the most likely explanation is that the flower buds are getting frozen off before they even have a chance to appear, but you should be able to see whether flower buds even set in the first place by carefully inspecting the tree in late winter – here are some good photos on how to tell the difference between a flower bud and one that will open to only leaves

As for your pear question – both Rick and I researched it and found it could be a lot of things: water stress (especially drought – and prematurely dropping fruit is a classic sign), nutrient deficiency, herbicide drift, anthracnose, a pest known as the pear leafcurling midge…it goes on. Because there are so many possibilities to consider, we encourage you to contact your local cooperative extension office and ask them. They will be the true experts on what may be plaguing a species in your particular area. 

Resistance to disease can occur at a genetic level – just like some humans are more resistant to certain diseases. Whereas insect resistance is much trickier. We can select for things like thick, leathery foliage, especially on roses, but ultimately, it’s impossible to say whether they are truly insect resistant or just less preferred if there are other choices. I think that Japanese beetles love roses so much that if they are active in your area and no roses with thinner foliage were available, they’d still feed on the thicker leafed one. So the confidence level in insect resistance is much harder to achieve than disease resistance.

First, we love your name! And second, thanks for asking this great question. Gardening Simplified is the name of our show, and we took it from the Gardening Simplified Landscape Guide that we’ve been producing here at Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs for over 15 years. That magazine does include all of our shrubs, but it’s not something you can order from. All Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs are distributed through garden centers across the US and Canada as well as through online retailers. If you see a shrub you like, either in the Gardening Simplified magazine or here on the Gardening Simplified show and your local garden center doesn’t carry it, they should be able to order it for you from the grower who supplies them with our plants. 

Do you have a question for us? We’re happy to help! E-mail us or use the contact tab above. Due to high volume, we may not get to your question, so if you need an answer quickly, please reach out via the Proven Winners website.

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A hydrangea in a low decorative container covered in pink and purple mophead flowers.

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