Planting Trees and Shrubs


Tree and Shrub Planting Basics

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Planting trees and shrubs provides plenty of exercise -- digging and lifting will work muscles you didn't even know you had. As for benefiting the environment, trees and shrubs shelter wildlife and filter the air by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.

Lasting impressions? Many species will be around long after you've gone to take harp lessons in the hinterlands. Finally, knowing that you've done something for the sake of your health, the environment, and your legacy -- well, that just gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling not available without a prescription.

If you've never planted a tree or shrub before, relax. It doesn't have to be physically exhausting. Bear in mind that trees and shrubs are sold in three different ways. Larger specimens often come balled and burlapped ("B&B" in landscapers' terms); smaller specimens are often sold bareroot; and container-grown specimens may be large, small, or somewhere in between. While a huge B&B tree may take a backhoe or skidster to plant, a diminutive bareroot specimen can be planted with a simple garden trowel. Here are some tips to help you plant a gift to the future.

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Plant a tree or shrub correctly, and you give it a head start on a healthy and productive life. But before you get the shovel out, look at your intended planting site and choose a species that fits the site and your needs. After you bring the ideal plant home, keep it watered and in a sheltered area until you are ready to plant.

There's an old saying that it's better to put a 10-cent plant in a dollar hole than a dollar plant in a 10-cent hole. In most cases, you should dig a hole that is twice as wide but no deeper than the root ball. One exception: When planting in heavy clay or compacted soil, dig a hole three to four times wider than the root ball to loosen the soil and encourage roots to spread out.

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Balled-and-Burlapped Plants

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To determine the correct size hole for your plant, lay a shovel handle across the top of the root ball (Photo A). Then measure from the bottom of the root ball to the shovel handle; the measurement is the depth of the hole you should dig.

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Carefully lift the plant into the hole, then lay the measuring stick across the top of the root ball to ensure it is at ground level (Photo B). Once the root ball is at the correct depth, position the plant so its most attractive side faces your primary viewpoint.

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Some B&B stock will have a metal basket surrounding the root ball. Remove the basket if you can do so without disturbing the root ball. Otherwise, use wire cutters to snip off the top two rungs. Plastic burlap should be removed, but burlap made of natural fibers can be left on the root ball if the sides are pulled down as far as possible (Photo C). This allows the roots to spread without waiting for the burlap to disintegrate and is especially important if you're dealing with treated burlap. In any case, always untie the rope that holds the burlap in place. Don't allow any portion of the burlap to remain above ground, as the fabric will wick moisture out of the planting hole.

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When backfilling the hole, use the same soil you removed. Resist the urge to amend the soil, an old practice that is no longer recommended. Amending the backfill encourages the roots to remain in that "comfort" zone rather than seeking moisture and nutrients elsewhere. Amended soil may also collect too much moisture from the surrounding ground.

Fill the hole two-thirds of the way to the top, then add water to settle the soil (Photo D) before you fill the remainder of the hole.

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Hold the tree or shrub upright while firming the soil around the base with your foot (Photo E). Leave a saucer-shape basin of soil at the base of the plant to collect water.

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Top the soil off with 3-4 inches of seasoned wood chips or shredded bark mulch (Photo F). Cover a wide area around the tree base to reduce competition from weeds and grass and to conserve moisture, but don't allow the mulch to pile up against the trunk. During the first growing season, water the tree or shrub every seven to 10 days if rainfall is lacking.

Find the best mulch for you.

Container-Grown Plants

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Container-grown trees and shrubs are planted the same way as B&B stock, with a few added precautions. First, water the plant generously just before planting. This will make it easier to slide the root ball out of the container. To help extract the plant, hit the sides of the container with the palm of your hand, rotating the container as you go. Holding the container in place with your feet, grip the base of the plant and gently pull until the root ball comes free. For larger containers, enlist someone's help, or use a heavy-duty knife or razor to cut the sides.

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Once the plant and container are separated, inspect the root ball. If you see a mass of swirling roots, cut through the mass to allow the roots to spread out rather than continuing to encircle the base of the plant. Use sharp clippers to cut four shallow gullies about 1/2 inch deep down the length of the root ball; space them evenly around the root ball (Photo G). Then take a dandelion weeder, screwdriver, or similar device and scrape the sides of the root mass to free up the roots (Photo H).

Bareroot Plants

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Forestry crews plant thousands of bareroot seedlings each year simply by making a slit in the soil, wedging the seedling in place, then closing the gap. So what's the big deal? That planting method may be fine for mass-planting expeditions, where casualties are expected, but it may cause slow growth and high mortality rates if used at home. Take a few extra steps when planting bareroot plants in your yard.

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First, soak seedling roots in a bucket of water for up to 24 hours to make sure they are well-hydrated. Bareroot seedlings dry out in a flash, so keep the roots submersed in the water until the hole is dug and ready for planting. The hole should be wide enough to accept the roots when they're spread out. Mound the soil in the center of the hole (Photo I). Snip off any roots that are broken or substantially longer than the root mass (Photo J), then spread the roots out on the mounded soil. The base of the tree (where the trunk starts to taper out into roots) should be at ground level.

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Backfill with the same soil you excavated. To help seedlings conserve water their first season in the ground, you may wish to add water-holding polymers to the backfill (Photo K). The polymers soak up moisture and release it as the surrounding soil dries.

Planting Rules (and When to Break Them)

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  • Don't stake. Exception: On a windy site, it is advisable to stake a tree, but for no longer than one year. Use two to three stakes connected to the tree with a wire. The wire should be covered with a piece of rubber hose where it comes in contact with the bark.
  • Don't wrap. Exception: Thin-bark trees benefit from protection in the winter. A paper tree wrap or white-colored drainage tile, extending from 1 inch below ground to the first series of branches, thwarts gnawing rodents and protects the tree against frost cracking. Do not use dark-color drainage tile. Remove the wrap in the spring to allow the trunk to expand.
  • Don't fertilize. Exception: It's OK to use balanced, slow-release fertilizer if the backfill soil is poor. Usually available in pellets, small briquettes, or beads, these encapsulated fertilizers release nutrients gradually over 12-18 months -- by which time roots have grown into the backfill soil.
  • Don't amend the soil. Exception: Amend the soil when planting rosebushes and smaller shrubs. It's especially helpful when planting a hedge.

How to Plant a Tree
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