One of the most frequently asked gardening questions is “What is the best way to prepare for and then plant a tree or shrub”? Unfortunately planting a tree or shrub isn’t as simple as just digging a hole and putting the tree in it.

When your ready to plant a tree or shrub in the ground, the information below will help you establish it properly. Putting effort into proper techniques allows your tree or shrub to get off to a good start and grow healthy and strong in the years to come. You will also prevent the common problem of a plant never becoming established and dying after one or two years. The steps you take when planting can speed its establishment and have lasting effects throughout its lifetime.

Principle Steps in Planting a Tree or Shrub:

Evaluating the site: Be sure the site is large enough for the tree or shrub you are going to plant. Is it going to outgrow its location as it matures? Is it far enough from structures that it will not grow and cause damage or eliminate views. Is it clear of overhead power or telephone lines? If the planting site is near the street or utility right-of-way check to be sure planting is permitted in that location.

Digging the hole: There is an old saying “it is better to plant a $10 tree in a $100 hole than a $100 tree in a $10 hole”…and, it couldn’t be more true. One of the most common mistakes when planting a tree or shrub is digging a hole which is too deep and too narrow. Trees should be transplanted no deeper than the soil in which they were originally grown. Too deep and the tree becomes girdled by the soil and mulch surrounding the base of the trunk; too narrow and the roots can’t grow into the surrounding soil and anchor the tree. The width of the hole should be at least two or three times the diameter of the root ball or container. This will provide the tree with enough loose soil for its roots to grow and establish itself.

Setting the Tree or Shrub in Place: Ball and Burlap and container grown trees and shrubs should always be lifted and carried by the ball or container, never by the trunk or branches. When planting a ball and burlap plant the burlap surrounding the ball should either be cut away completely (always in the case of synthetic or plastic burlap) or at a minimun be pulled back from the top third of the ball. Any string or twine around the trunk should be removed. Metal baskets should be cut away with only the bottom remaining. For container plants, once the container has been carefully removed check the roots. If they are tightly compressed or ‘potbound’, use your fingers or a blunt tool (to minimize root tearing) to carefully tease the fine roots away from the tight mass and then spread the roots as the plant is set in the hole. In the case of extremely compacted woody roots, it may be necessary to cut some roots to break up the compacted mass. Loosening the root structure in this way is extremely important for container plants. Failure to do so may result in the roots never growing into the new soil.

Backfill (loosened soil from the planting hole, or in the case of clay soil a combination of up to one third organic material such as fine pine bark chips or well rotted wood mulch) is then placed in the hole surrounding the tree just to the height of the ball or container, or slightly lower to allow for some settling. Do not compress the back fill soil or tamp with your feet as this may compact the soil and inhibit the roots from growing into the surrounding soil.

Watering: Newly planted trees or shrubs should be watered at the time of planting. A very through wetting at least to the bottom of the hole is needed to wash the fine soil particles into the voids and ensure the roots are in contact with the soil.

During the first and second growing season, the plants should be watered at least once a week in the absence of rain, more often during the height of the summer. You can check for moisture once a week with a soil probe, available at most garden centers. They’re relatively inexpensive and easy to use. A rule of thumb is to water at least one to two inches of water per week. Regular deep soakings are better than frequent light wettings. Moisture should reach a depth of 12 to 18 inches below the soil surface to encourage root growth.

Mulching: To conserve moisture the back filled soil surrounding newly-planted trees should be covered with mulch consisting of organic material such as bark, wood chips or pine needles. Mulch depth should be between two to four inches. Do not, under any circumstances, cover the area surrounding the tree with plastic sheeting since air and water movement would be prevented.

Pruning: Use restraint when pruning your newly-planted trees and shrubs. Prune only to remove damaged or broken branches or to provide good long-term structure to the tree or shrub. The shape or structure of the young tree is a reflection of how it will look as it matures. So prune only branches that are close together, rubbing other branches or those with a very narrow (weak) crotch angle. In addition, do not paint the cuts with “tree” paint or you will slow the healing process. For more information on pruning at planting time and as the tree or shrub grows and matures see How to Prune a Deciduous Tree or Shrub.

Staking Young trees and shrubs should be able to support their own weight when they are transplanted; however, when planting in windy areas or in urban conditions where plants may be damaged they may need to be staked. Just as with bones, it is better to stress the roots so if you do stake the tree or shrub only stake it for the first growing season. In addition, the tree should not be tightly staked; there should be room for the tree to sway in the wind.

Fertilizing: Do not fertilize the tree or shrub when planting. Contact with chemical fertilizer may damage the new roots and inhibit root growth. However, since all soils have a different chemistry, it is very beneficial to get the soil analyzed for nutrients such as Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K), pH, and drainage before planting so the correct mixture and amount of fertilizer (and lime) can be applied prior to the second growing season.

Wrapping Wrapping refers to the technique of winding a paper-type material around the trunk of the plant to prevent sun-scalding. However; the problems caused by the wrap (moisture buildup, disease and insect infestation) outweigh the benefits, so do not wrap the trunk of trees.

Planting a tree or shrub correctly really isn’t difficult. After your planting is done remember it will take a year or two for newly planted trees and shrubs to become established and adjust to their new surroundings. During that time, you should make sure that they are receiving sufficient water.

By Chuck