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Tips for improving the odds of a successful transplant

Why did my Rhodochiton die?

Make that Rhodochitons -- four little plants in a row, in a nice new planter; perfectly healthy when I bought them, all twisted and ratty a few days after I transplanted them.

Not enough sun? I moved them to a sunnier spot.

Not enough water? I watered them enthusiastically. I fed them. I talked nice to them. They just lay down and died.

How embarrassing is it to fail at Rhodochiton.

Garden guru Jeff Lowenfels once declared it the unofficial flower of the Alaska State Fair. The fair wouldn't have a flower that's hard to grow, right? I figure it's like failing at chickweed.

Every gardener has at least one irritating problem to deal with -- moose eating the broccoli, aphids eating the tomatoes, slugs eating everything. My burden is The Evil Rosebush: It was already an adult when I bought my house 20 years ago. I never liked it much but left it alone, even when it sent out endless traveling roots that caused multiple baby rosebushes to pop up where they weren't wanted. But no big deal. I just clipped them off at the ground.

This year I decided to completely redo the garden.

I took the rosebush out, and stuck a pitchfork in the ground to pull up the root pack. Surprise, surprise. A 20-year tangle of roots ran from one end of the yard to the other, miles of them, tied in huge knots, woven like an underground tapestry, hard as cement.

Everywhere I stuck a trowel, I hit another mess of rose roots, leading to hours of digging and chopping and yanking. (It took me a while to realize I can never win this battle because the roots are growing up from hell. But I digress.)

Anyhow, as I saw it, I didn't deserve dead Rhodochiton. I needed to know what I did wrong. Luckily, we have the transplant titans of the universe right here in Anchorage: The muni greenhouse puts 80,000 plants in the ground every spring in less than three weeks.

Horticulture foreman Stephen Gray soothed my shame by assuring me that Rhodochiton, a fast-growing vine with amazing flowers -- blackish pendants hanging under bright pink umbrellas -- is kind of finicky this far north. The muni doesn't grow it.

Gray didn't know why my transplants failed, but offered some general tips for successful transplanting, especially for new gardeners:

1.

Choose "tried and true" plant species and buy them from a local grower. Some of the plants offered by the big box stores just don't do well in Alaska, he said. Local greenhouses know what works for us.

2.

Plant or buy as early as possible and shift small plants up to larger pots for several weeks before transplanting them.

The bigger a plant is before you put it in the ground, the better it's going to do.

3. Improper watering is probably the major cause of transplant failure, he said. Never plant a dry root ball. Water it before transplanting and let it sit a while. Water it again after you put it in the ground.

This assumes you're dealing with a plant that is mature and well-rooted enough to transplant. You actually have to be careful not to overwater very small plants and overwhelm their wispy roots.

4. Many planting directions talk about the need for good drainage, but effective watering is also necessary. Just because it rained and the ground looks wet doesn't mean water is getting down to the roots where it's needed, Stephen said.

"Stick a trowel in and see how far down the wet goes." Chances are it's dry 4 inches down.

Gray said people are always getting annoyed at him, asking "Why are you watering in the rain?" But we rarely get a truly soaking rain here, even during the August wet season, so you have to water.

As for my Rhodochiton, I went to the source. State Fair Head Gardener Becky Myrvold said the fair started growing the showy climber back in the '80s but stopped a couple of years ago. She confirmed that Rhodochiton can be difficult to grow. In fact, people used to marvel at how well hers did and ask for her "secret."

They didn't believe her when Myrvold said she didn't have one. Asked why hers did so well, she suggested -- emphasizing it's just a guess -- that Rhodochiton likes a soil-heavy plant mixture, which she used. Most nurseries use peat-heavy mixtures.

Also, she said, a Rhodochiton doesn't like to be transplanted.