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How to Plant Correctly

By Marshall Warren, Extension Horticulture Agent

Now that your soil is prepared, it’s time to begin planting. Most people think that the best time to plant is in the spring, however, the best time to plant trees, shrubs and perennials is during the fall season. Planting in the fall allows enough time for the plants to establish a root system during the cooler months which will help them survive during the following year’s hot dry summer. If you have prepared your soil as described in the August issue of the Gardener’s Dirt newsletter, planting should be the easiest and most fun part of installing your landscape. Although, if you don’t know how to correctly install your new plants, the results of your efforts will be disappointing. Many people have called me at the extension office wanting my help to determine why their plants are not thriving or why they have died. After asking them a few questions or after inspection, nine times out of ten, I have determined that they were installed incorrectly.

There are three types of planting stock: container-grown, ball & burlap (B&B), and bare root. Be sure to select high quality nursery stock. Look for plant that are free of insects and disease, have a pleasing shape, are not root bound, and have healthy white roots. Correct planting technique begins with the choosing and loading of plants at the local nursery or garden center. Home gardeners and landscapers should be very careful when handling plant material. Always protect the roots, stems and foliage during transport. Make sure not to damage the trunk while transporting trees, as any wound can cause permanent damage and potentially reduce its life span. B&B trees are very susceptible to this type injury because of the weight of the rootball, so protect their trunk. Lift plants from underneath the rootball with the appropriate equipment. Never pick up a plant by the trunk. Container-grown plants should be handled by the container and never by the tops of the plant. Plant tops should be shielded from winds,  if transported in the open they will suffer wind burn and will lose their leaves. If plants must be held or stored for a period of time, it is best to place them in a location protected from the wind and sun. Do not let the roots freeze or dry out during this time. If there is a delay in planting, one should “heel in” bare root and B&B material by covering the roots with soil, bark or some other mulch.

The addition of organic matter provides little or no advantage to the planting hole in good soils. Backfill should, in most cases, be the soil removed from the planting hole: “What comes out…goes back in.”  This is especially important for B&B material and bare-root planting stock. When planting trees and shrubs in large beds, preparation of the entire planting bed area with organic matter, e.g. compost or composted pine bark, that is uniformly mixed with the soil, and not just within individual holes is recommended.

Digging the planting hole sounds easy enough, but this is often where some major mistakes are made. The most important consideration in planting trees and shrubs is the planting depth. The most common mistake made is planting too deeply in the ground. Don’t plant too deep!   When preparing your planting holes, dig the hole two to three times as wide as the root ball and at least the same depth as the root ball. Don’t have slick sides to the planting hole. Break up the sides of the planting hole with your shovel to allow roots to easily move out into the surrounding soil. Make sure the hole has a firm bottom to prevent the plant from sinking as the soil settles. When placing the plant in the hole, the soil surface around the trunk should be at the same level as the ground or preferably, slightly higher. With trees make sure the root flare at the base of the trunk is exposed. It is better to plant in a raised manner so the roots will not drown or suffocate.

Before placing the container grown plant in the planting hole; loosen, and if root-bound, shave off a portion of the outside of the root mass, or vertically cut slices along the sides of the rootball. “Root-bound” refers to plants that have roots encircling within the container. The entangled roots are a physical barrier to future root growth and development. If this condition is not corrected at planting time, the plant may experience slow growth and establishment or even break off at ground level because of the girdled roots.

When planting a tree or shrub, never put fertilizer directly in the planting hole before planting. Putting fertilizer in the hole will allow direct contact of the fertilizer with the roots which will burn them.

For the most efficient use of water, construct an earthen dam around the drip-zone area of the plant after planting. Water will have the ability to collect in this saucer and move slowly down into the root zone and runoff will be minimized. Remove this earthen dam once plants are well rooted and established. After planting, add a 3 to 4-inch layer of mulch around the plant. Mulch will conserve moisture, discourage weeds, and improve the aesthetics of the landscape.

A newly-planted tree or shrub should be watered well after planting. It is important to note that many plants die from too little or too much water during the first few months after planting. As you water your plant, it can help to dig into the soil with your fingers to actually see and feel the soil to determine how wet the soil is. As the plant gets established during the first year, you can begin to cut back on how often you water but you will still need to provide water to the plant during periods of extreme dry conditions.

It is best to avoid a heavy application of fertilizer, especially nitrogen fertilizer, after planting. You want to allow time for the root system to get established, and if you planted in the fall, wait to start adding small applications of fertilizer until the spring.

By paying attention to these critical details before, during and after planting you will establish a landscape that will bring enjoyment for many years to come.

Written By

Photo of Charlene Lassiter, N.C. Cooperative ExtensionCharlene LassiterAdministrative Support Specialist (919) 989-5380 (Office) charlene_lassiter@ncsu.eduJohnston County, North Carolina
Page Last Updated: 9 months ago
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