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Weekly Gardening Guide: 10 Steps of Planting Trees, Shrubs and Perennials

April 29, 2015

This is the time of year where we often hear the question “is it too early to plant a tree or shrub?” The answer, at least in most cases is NO! In fact, our motto around here is “If you can put a shovel in the ground, you can put a plant in the ground!”

Firstly we must understand the very important distinction between planting and transplanting.

Though this may seem like an obvious difference to some, I can tell you from experience that for some gardeners, a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing! I hear from customers all the time “Oh, I guess I should wait until fall to plant this tree because its too hot to plant right?” NO! This is a common misconception extrapolated from the knowledge that one shouldn’t TRANSPLANT a tree or shrub in summer. Its never a bad time to PLANT a container grown tree or shrub! They’re healthy and thriving in this little pot, just think how happy they’d be to be growing in your soil! The key to planting in the summer is simply looking after it after its in the ground!

Transplanting on the other hand involves taking an already established plant from one location and moving it to another. This usually means severing roots, disrupting the soil to root contact and generally stressing out the plant. If transplanting needs to be done, it is ideally done in the “dormant season” – very early spring, or very late fall, while the plant is shut down for winter, but hopefully the ground hasn’t frozen solid yet.

So, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, how do we go about planting our beautiful new tree, shrub or perennial (that we bought from the wonderful people at Heirloom Greens & Gardens)!?
Firstly, you have to make sure you’ve brought home all the necessary planting materials.

Here is “total planting package” – quantities will depend on the size of the plant:
- A plant
- Triple Mix Soil (enough to fill half of your hole)
- Root Booster Fertilizer*
- Bone Meal
- Myke Growth Supplement*
- A stake or staking kit*
- Mulch

*Optional, but highly recommended

Now follow these steps and refer to the diagram as needed (Did you know I was a talented artist too?)!

1) Apply Root Booster while it is still in the pot.
Root Booster needs to find the roots, so this is best done while its still in the pot. Follow the label directions for mixing Root Booster and water, then apply directly into the pot to give it time to soak in while you dig your hole and prep for planting.

2) Dig your hole!
The hole should be dug so that it is TWICE AS WIDE as the pot that the plant is in, and 1-2” SHALLOWER than the root ball. This will ensure a solid base for the tree to rest on, and will reduce the amount of movement as the soil settles. Save the soil that you dig out of it, as you will need it later.

3) Remove the tree from the plastic pot.
Sometimes you may need to cut the pot away with a blade (please be careful doing this).
Some of our trees and shrubs were grown in fibre pots. These pots are made of a paper material that will decompose in the soil as the plant grows. DO NOT REMOVE YOUR PLANT FROM THIS POT. Simply place this pot directly in the ground. You may cut or break off the lip so that it doesn’t stick out, but leave the rest of the pot around the majority of the root ball in the ground!
Some trees and shrubs – particularly evergreens - will have rootballs known as “ball in burlap”. Sometimes the burlap ball is placed inside of a plastic pot with mulch to aide in watering sometimes not. Like the fibre pots, burlap will decompose in the ground, it is important to leave the rootball in the burlap as it will help stabilize the roots. Simply place the entire tree in the ground, and when you are ready to backfill just make sure you cut the twine away from the base of the tree.

4) Lightly scarify the roots (this step does not apply to ball in burlap or fibre pots)
Another common misconception is that you should aggressively break up the root ball before you plant it to get the roots growing in the right direction. This will only increase the stress put on the plant during establishment as you have disrupted the root to soil contact. Instead, simply rake your fingers lightly over the outside of the root ball, helping to dislodge any roots that were growing in circles around the pot so that they may become reoriented in the soil. The root ball should still resemble the pot it was grown in when you put it in the ground!

5) Add bone meal to the bottom of the hole.
Bone meal is a time-tested, centuries old natural fertilizer which contains high levels of organic phosphorus which is a valuable nutrient during the establishment of a new planting. It is placed in the bottom of the hole (and can be mixed into the surrounding soil too) because that is where the roots will be moving next and need to have easy access to this phosphorus! Use about 1 cup for a 10 Gallon pot.

6) Orient your plant in the hole.
Decide which direction you want the plant to face, and then pack a bit of soil around it to hold it in place.  The crown of the tree should be at least 1-2” higher than the surrounding soil since water pooling around the base of the tree softens the bark and creates an entry point for diseases and pests!

7) Stake it
This is only necessary if you are worried about wind, or if the tree has a very thin caliper. Most trees that we sell do not need to be staked if properly planted as they are thick enough to remain upright. The plant will naturally want to continue growing straight! However if you decide you need to stake it, drive your stakes beside the root ball and into well compacted soil, not through it. Driving a stake into the rootball could sever large roots and injure the plant.

8) Backfill the hole.
Using 1 part triple mix and 1 part native soil (the soil you dug out of the hole), backfill the hole, keeping the plant straight and packing the soil lightly with your foot. There is no need to stomp or tamp the soil, but it should be packed down enough that it will not settle or move too much. Do not mound soil around the base of the tree – as mentioned above, moisture around the base of the tree is your enemy. Do not add extra soil to the top of the rootball, just leave it as it was in the pot.

9) Mulch
Mulch around the planting area. Pile the mulch 1.5-2” thick. Leave a gap of at least 1” around the crown of the tree – again, to allow the trunk to dry out and prevent pests. Mulch will help retain moisture and will prevent weeds from germinating which could compete with the tree for soil nutrients.

10) Water and aftercare!
This is an entire blog post on its own, however proper moisture management is key to a healthy planting! This does not mean water it constantly! It means water AS NEEDED! If I had to guess, 9/10 customers who have trouble following a new planting are well intentioned gardeners who “kill it with kindness”. Too much water is just as harmful as too little. The best way to determine if your new plant needs water is to stick a finger in the soil near the base of it. If the soil feels cool and moist, hold off on watering! If it feels warm and dusty, give it a good soaking! Make sure that the water is penetrating the soil and not just running off. Often times this means small volumes of water multiple times rather than just drenching it once.
Deep and infrequent watering is the key to a healthy rootzone. You have to let plants experience some drought stress in order to force deep and healthy roots and allow air to enter the soil – but don’t take that advice to the extreme either! If its hot and dry, give your new baby some water.

I think this post might actually be the longest yet. Sorry! As always if you have any questions don’t hesitate to call or email.

(519) 455-8873

Thanks for reading and happy gardening!
- Bryan

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