Dormant to dynamics; ETSU’s spring planting tips

Published 11:21 am Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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There’s a reason “spring fever” made it into dictionaries generations ago. 

For many, the seasonal shift of warmer weather brings a renewed sense of energy and enthusiasm. 

And for gardeners, there’s even more excitement: a time to plant those sunflowers, zinnias and more.  

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In that spirit, East Tennessee State University’s Travis Watson, the campus arborist and manager of Landscape and Grounds, offers some important tips for planters in the Appalachian Highlands. 


Hold off cleaning out the dead from beds. A range of native insects and pollinators overwinter in leaves, hollow stems, debris and more. “It can be hard to resist the urge to clean out those beds on the first warm sunny day of spring, but it is best practice to wait until temperatures are steady and the possibility of frost and freeze are past,” Watson said.  

Go native. Selecting flowers and shrubs that have evolved to live in our area is critical. “Plants that are native to our region have developed highly specialized relationships with our native insects and animals,” he said. 

Be diverse. That means including as many plants as possible. Watson: “You want to provide interest in the garden year-round and also provide floral and other resources that support insects and wildlife.”  

Grab some mulch. Apply roughly 2-3 inches of organic mulch to trees, shrubs and flower beds. “This will help to stabilize soil temperatures, retain water during dry periods and suppress weeds, while improving soil quality to support microorganisms and improve nutrient availability and uptake,” he added.  

Analyze the space. Selecting the right plant for the right space is an important consideration. “Consider how large it will get,” he said, “and what form it wants to have, how much sunlight it needs or can tolerate, its water needs and associated pests and problems.” 


Plant anything invasive. Bringing such plants into the region can have serious effects. “Exotic plants have a greater potential for invasiveness and can displace native plants and reduce resource availability for native insects and animals,” Watson said. 

Overwater. Many trees and shrubs perform best with infrequent, deep watering. “This encourages roots to seek resources deeper in the soil and improves drought tolerance. Supplement watering for the first year when we have had less than one inch of rainfall,” he said. “Also, be cautious about assuming our heavy afternoon summer rains are sufficient to wet the soil. Much of this runs off and evaporates in the heat. Once a week, water deep.” 

Plant large crape myrtles in small spaces. The crape myrtle is becoming more popular, but many are topped regularly to keep them confined. “This practice is unsustainable and creates an unnatural appearance,” he said. “There are many cultivars of crape myrtle that remain small.” 

Amend planting soil. Unless your soil is poor, it is usually best to dig a wide hole – about three times the root ball’s diameter – and backfill with native soil only. He added: “Adding compost and other materials to the planting hole creates an interface between the native soil and planting hole that hinders water infiltration and encourages disease.” 

Overthink. Most native plants are resilient and well adapted to the area. “Provide them space, sunlight and water and enjoy the beauty and benefits that they offer,” Watson added.