ceanothus problems--did everything wrong?

noodlesportland(NW)June 26, 2009


Followed the nursery's instructions and planted Victoria California Lilac with Black Forest Compost and Organics Kelp Meal. They are in a clay hill and get sun. Planted some four and some two weeks ago. Neighbors have one about 10 years old nearby and it is thriving. They all (planted in two batches) have yellowing leaves. I have been looking this up and seems that they don't like compost/fertilizer. I am puzzled as to whether they are getting enough water or too much water. We have been watering nearly every day. Any advice welcome!

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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

The value of telling customers to plant their purchases in amended planting hole backfill with fertilizer added is that the garden center makes more money than if you just bought the plants. It's called "tie-in sales" and has nothing to do with good horticultural practice. Amending of planting hole backfill was first seen to not produce a benefit at least 40 years ago.

Always plant in the same soil that came out of the hole, without modification. Fertilize only when their is some indication that it is needed, hopefully a soil test.

Drought adapted shrubs planted in amended planting holes dug out of clay soil, backfilled with amended soil and watered daily sounds like a good recipe for root rot. Dig around next to them and check the conditions at their roots. You may find they are sitting in muck, or their are puddles in the bottoms of the holes. If they are too wet pull them out and re-do the planting, removing the compost in the process.

If the existing soil is too damp and heavy for them they will not grow well, if at all even if re-planted without amendments and no longer over-watered. If they have declined in condition enough they will not bounce back readily even if moved to a completely suitable spot.

While apparently easier to grow and more garden tolerant than many ceanothus 'Victoria' (probably correctly 'Skylark') will only take so much - same as any other shrub - before it starts to fail.

    Bookmark   June 26, 2009 at 3:42PM
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Thanks bboy--I am pretty sure that they are overwatered--just a little puzzled as the bush feels dry to the touch but the leaves are turning yellow and falling off--so dry=underwatered and yellow=overwatered to my very novice knowledge. I will check the roots.

    Bookmark   June 26, 2009 at 3:51PM
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Ok--I took a feel at two of them--there is dampness but not mud--not paticuarily wet at all. If these were house plants I would wait 3-4 days to water them again. Thoughts?

    Bookmark   June 26, 2009 at 5:20PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

In both cases (wet or dry) leaves discolor and drop off because the roots are having a problem. Get down in there and find out what is happening inside the rootballs and inside the planting holes.

    Bookmark   June 26, 2009 at 8:19PM
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reg_pnw7(WA 7, sunset 4)

Yeah, pretty much, your post title gets it right.

Ceanothus do NOT want rich soil, or even good soil. they like poor lean well drained soils. A clay soil that is sloped will probably be fine with no additions. No fertilizer, no manures, no kelp. They do grow in clay soils in the wild, most of the natural distribution of ceanothus in California is on clay soils, but sloped for drainage, and no irrigation in summer.

And, they do NOT want a moist soil. Watering every day is too often. Since they are newly planted they won't want to go totally dry between waterings, but pretty close. Drought tolerant shrubs do need to be watered their first summer at least, but not kept continually damp.

The instructions given you by the nursery are totally wrong for ceanothus. You should take them back and expect a replacement or refund. It's their instructions that did the poor things in, how were you to know? they're supposed to be the experts and you were just following instructions. If you hadn't followed their instructions and the things died, they could rightly refuse to give you a new plant or refund, but they steered you wrong when you're paying them for their expertise.

Symptoms of overwatering and underwatering are the same. After all, overwatering causes the roots to rot, so the plant's not getting any water ...

Yellowing leaves, depending on details, can be either/and overwatering, underwatering, and fertilizer burn. You could have all three going on. The amended soil you filled the hole with could be wet while the immediate root ball from the nursery container is bone dry, or vice versa. One of the pitfalls of amending planting holes.

    Bookmark   June 28, 2009 at 11:54AM
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markw(z9 CA)

Make it unanimous - the problem here is almost certainly overwatering. The others are right about the amendments - ceanothus doesn't need/want the nutrition and it doesn't help drainage just to amend what's in the planting hole. You need to think about the conditions ceanothus is adapted to in California: poor, sandy, gravelly, perfectly-drained soils, usually on a slope and little if any rain from May through September. In other words, dry roots when the weather is warm and the annual watering when weater is cooler. Ceanothus are notoriously prone to root rot (which is favored by warm/wet conditions) and even though 'Skylark' (if that's what it is) is supposed to be better with summer water than most, daily water is a sure way to kill one. The clay soil isn't helpful but since the neighbor's plants are OK, it should be possible (unless soil conditions are different, which isn't uncommon in the PNW). Think about watering thoroughly more like every couple *weeks* (if it doesn't rain) when getting established and then not at all. Let it dry out in between, keeping in mind it takes a long time for clay soils to dry out. You're *far* more likely to kill ceanothus with too much water than with too little. If it turns out it's already too late for these plants and you need to start over, you might think about planting the fall and letting Mother Nature handle the watering - after getting replacement plants free from the nursery.

    Bookmark   June 28, 2009 at 5:58PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

It is easier to get Ceanothus established if you plant in seasons when the soil doesn't get warm enough to promote root rots under wet conditions. It is generally recommended to plant natives such as Ceanothus in the fall, after the first rains, so that they don't need to be hand watered. As you have planted in summer, it may be helpful to mulch heavily, water at night so the soil is wettest under the coolest conditions, and perhaps erect a shade cover temporarily to minimize moisture loss and therefore reduce the amount of water you need to provide.

The fact that you have clay soil is not necessarily a problem for Ceanothus when planted on a slope; the slope generally provides the necessary drainage. The advice to limit irrigation as they get established is spot on, but newly planted plants can also die if they dry out before they root into the surrounding soil. If these plants don't make it, I'd suggest trying again in fall...

On the other hand, nursery container plants do get watered every day, and don't get root rots, and they are also fertilized to promote faster growth. The key thing is watering at night or on cooler days only, and be sure you have provided good drainage. Hot fertilizers such as manures can cause problems, but a time release fertilizer such as Osmocote generally doesn't.

    Bookmark   June 28, 2009 at 10:22PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Slopes do not provide internal drainage. A damp clay soil will still have the same textural characteristics regardless of the angle of the surface of the ground above.

Container stock still in nurseries can and does get root-rotting water molds to the tune of millions of dollars in losses. Sun baking pots with lots of water being splashed around is quite conducive to their development - if there is much puddling conditions may be optimal.

    Bookmark   June 29, 2009 at 1:34PM
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It's totally normal for Ceanothus to have lower/inner leaves turn yellow and drop off in the summer. The plant actually 'wants' to go semi-dormant in summer. I don't know exactly what the rule of thumb is if the plant is still really young but I would try to avoid watering it at all unless it looks truly at risk. Since you're watering very often now, I'd suggest switching to very infrequent (Puzzled by the statement that slopes do not help drainage. Maybe more accurate to say that a little hill won't help unless it's big enough relative to the crown?

Another way to go with the time of day to water is early morning so that the soil is likeliest to dry during the course of the day.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2009 at 6:00PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

The assumption is often made that because the surface on the site slopes, drainage will not be a problem. If internal drainage through both the top soil and the subgrade is good, this is correct. However, if the subgrade drains poorly, the conditions on a slope may actually be worse than on a relatively level surface. Where the surface slopes, water may percolate through the top soil down the slope and into the planting hole. Where percolation of water through the subgrade is slow, the planting hole can fill with water and suffocate roots very quickly

--Carl E. Whitcomb, Establishment and Maintenance of Landscape Plants (1987 (1991), Lacebark Inc., Stillwater)

    Bookmark   July 11, 2009 at 9:22PM
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HI everyone---just wanted to update--I took the advice to stop watering and they are all just fine. In fact the solo that is planted in the dryest of all spots is the happiest.
I water about every 7-10 days and that is it and they are all green and healthy looking. THANK YOU as I would have drowned them!!!!

    Bookmark   July 27, 2009 at 10:43PM
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