Five Key Steps For Planting Trees & Shrubs Like The Pros
Lourdes Pereira de Souza

Even in ideal conditions, I believe there are five key steps when it comes time to plant trees and shrubs. Follow these, and you can virtually ensure that whatever you are putting in the ground will have the best chance for long-term success.

While you can plant trees and shrubs any time of year, fall is the ideal season. It’s the time of year I always reserve for any serious planting project. Environmentally, it’s the best of both worlds. The air is cool for less stress above ground, and the soil is still warm to promote root growth below.

Five Key Steps for Planting Trees & Shrubs

1.     Dig hole 2-3 times wider than the container size or root ball. It’s also critical that you don’t dig your hole too deep. Test for proper depth by resting your shovel across the grade. Use it as a guide to compare it to the top of your plant or tree’s roots when sitting in the hole. Shoot for a depth so when the plant is sitting in the hole, the top of its roots are no deeper than the shovel handle. I prefer to plant higher – up to 25% higher than grade. By planting higher, you have less risk of water pooling towards the roots and drowning your plant.

2.     Break up the rootball. Most containerized plants start to form a tightly wound circular pattern as roots continue to grow inside of their confined space. As you prepare the plant for its new location, slice around the roots, including the bottom, or break them up or tease them apart, to liberate the growth of future roots out into the planting hole. This is the only chance you have to break up the circular pattern.

3.     Backfill the hole with native soil. The grade should taper slightly away from the base so water doesn’t pool in the middle. If you’ve ever been taught to amend the native soil with organic matter or compost, don’t. Studies show that plants establish quicker without the help of soil amendments. Call it tough love. They’ll be better off in the long run for it.

4.     Add mulch. Natural mulch such as shredded hardwood or bark is good, although any natural mulch will work. Apply a two-inch layer all the way from two-inches off the base of the tree out to the dripline or beyond.

5.     Water thoroughly. A generous soaking at planting time is critical to re-hydrate the plant and help dispel air pockets in the soil around the roots.

A slow steady flow right at the base to soak the entire root area is ideal. I like to use a bubbler or soaker attachment at the time of initial planting to thoroughly saturate the root ball and surrounding soil. But ongoing, I prefer a soaker or drip irrigation system combined with a portable timer to maintain consistent ongoing watering. It delivers heavy, concentrated amounts of water gently to the surface. Connect that to an automatic timer and set it at the base of the shrub for up to 30 minutes.

Give your plants the best chance of success but taking the time up front to set them up for success. These five steps for planting trees & shrubs will be the best thing you can do to ensure that happens.