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How To Plant Trees And Shrubs
by Marion Owen
November 10, 1999

Planting trees and shrubs is a pretty straightforward, step-by-step process. Carefully read through each step before you get started.

The best time to plant trees and shrubs is early spring when the ground has thawed and it isn't too waterlogged. Too late in the spring or early summer and the plant will suffer because it's already using precious energy for new growth.

Small trees become established and start growing faster than large ones. On the other hand, bigger trees (those with a trunk diameter greater than 2 inches) are better equipped to survive competition from other plants and damage from weed-eaters, lawn mowers and animals.

Trees and shrubs come "packaged" in a variety of ways: bare-root, balled-and-burlapped, or "canned" (container-grown). All of them have advantages and disadvantages that are important to consider when buying and planting trees and shrubs.


Most deciduous plants are sold as bare-root: fruit trees, cane fruit, deciduous flowering shrubs; even strawberry plants are sold this way. Generally 50% less expensive than balled-and-burlapped or container-grown plants, a bare-root plant also establishes itself faster and often better than a container plant because when you set out a bare-root plant you can refill the planting hole with the native soil that you dug out, so the roots grow in only one kind of soil. When you plant from a container (which usually contains more loose and porous soil), you put two different soils in contact with each other, making it difficult to water uniformly and roots may be slow to grow into native soil.

Before planting, soak bare-root plants overnight in a bucket of water to freshen and plump-up the roots.


Balled-and-burlapped plants (often called B & B) are dug with a ball of soil containing their roots and the soil ball is then wrapped in burlap and tied up with twine to keep it intact. Plants sold this way include some deciduous shrubs and trees, evergreen shrubs such as azaleas and rhododendrons, and various conifers.

Many B & B plants are grown in fairly dense soil. If this is the case with your plant, incorporate peat moss or other organic material (not manure) to the soil you'll use to backfill the hole. This will improve the water retention of the backfill soil, creating a good transition zone of soil.


Plants are grown in containers (cans) for many reasons: most broad-leafed evergreen shrubs and trees are offered only in cans; they're easier and less costly to transport; they come in a variety of sizes; and they don't have to be planted immediately after purchase.

The planting process for container-grown plants is similar to that used in planting B & B plants. Again, it's a good idea to add organic materials to the backfill soil. Many container plants are grown in a light, loose, fast-draining mix. But when a plant with a root ball of loose soil is placed in a hole filled with dense, native soil, the roots will be slow to venture out into the denser soil. Also, the denser garden soil may act like a "container" by holding too much water.


Before we get started, remember to treat all plants carefully. Plant on a cool, overcast day. Don't use the trunk as a handle, and don't drop it because the root ball can "shatter." Cradle the root ball well by supporting the bottom with one or both hands, if not too heavy. If it's too heavy have a friend to help you carry it. (Be sure to treat them with beer and pizza).

1) Water the plant so the roots are moistened but not flooded.

2) Dig a hole twice as wide as the root ball and several inches deeper. Set the excavated soil aside on a tarp or in a wheelbarrow.

3) For containerized plants, remove the plant from the container. Slant the pot toward the ground and shake it with one hand and hold onto the soil against the pot with the other. Careful, you don't want the plant to fall on its head! If that doesn't work, cut away the container along the sides or the bottom and push it out. Whatever you do, don't yank on the stem.

4) If the roots have encircled the bottom of the pot, or they are dense and compacted, gently loosen them with your fingers (don't cut them) to encourage them to start growing out into the garden soil.

5) Holding the root mass, not the stem, set the plant in the hole. Center it and make sure it's standing straight. Walk around it and check it from all sides. If it's a bare-root plant, spread the roots evenly over a cone of soil shaped at the bottom of the hole. If the root ball is wrapped in burlap, place it in the hole and unwrap it once in place, or lower it by handling the edges of the fabric.

6) Make sure the top of the hole and the top of the root mass are at the same level. If the hole is too shallow, the roots will be exposed which will dry them out. Remove the plant and dig out more soil. If the hole is too deep, the roots will sink too low, cutting off the oxygen and smothering the plant. Remove the plant and shovel in more soil. It's better to err on the side of having the plant sit too high in the hole. You can always mound the shoulder up when you fill in the hole. The plant is likely to settle a bit, and if it sits a little high in the beginning, it's less likely to settle below the soil grade.

7) If you're planting a burlapped-wrapped tree or shrub, gently pull back as much of the burlap as possible without making the root mass fall apart. Also, make sure it's actually burlap, and not look-alike plastic mesh. If plastic, remove as much as possible so roots can escape.

8) Fill in the hole with the soil you removed, occasionally tamping it down with your hands, (not your foot!). Remember, add organic material such as peat or compost to the hole as you backfill. If the hole is deep, stop about 2/3 of the way up and soak the soil you've put in so far.

9) Once the hole is filled, slowly water the ground around the tree, allowing it to soak in thoroughly from top to bottom. Place a trickling hose a short distance out from the trunk. Let it run for a while and periodically re-locate it. Thoroughly soaking the soil is important as water helps the roots establish immediate contact with the new soil. After initially watering bare-root trees however, water them conservatively as dormant plants use less water than actively growing ones. And be patient; some bare-root trees and shrubs are slow to leaf out.

10) Prune any dead branches from the tree. This is not the time though, to prune any more than that.

11) Spread a layer of organic mulch such as leaves, bark chips, or peat moss mixed with leaves around the base of the plant and several feet out.

12) To protect newly planted trees and shrubs from chewing dogs, scratching cats, and out-of-control lawn mowers and weed-eaters, encircle the lower trunk with an expandable material such as wire fencing or dryer vent material slotted on one end.


Proper staking holds a tree upright while leaving it flexible. If possible though, it's better to leave a newly-planted tree unstaked. The trunk will strenghthen and thicken faster without additional support.

But a new tree will often be top-heavy, toppling in a strong wind if it's not supported. For such trees, place 2 stakes one on opposite sides of the trunk. Fix a crossbar at the bottom of the 2 stakes to brace them together. A tie from both stakes (looped around the trunk just below the branches and brought back to the original stake) lets the tree bend a bit in the wind.

Proper planting and caring for your trees and shrubs will bring years of enjoyment to your home, office, school, parks and community. Once established, these same plants require little maintenance. Such a deal.


Tree stumps make great additions to your landscape--you just have to know how to transform them into works of art! Cut the top of the stump and use it as a pedestal for a birdbath, sundial, or sculpture; if it's a hardwook such as oak, carve it into a statue; or hollow out the stump and fill it with water to serve as a birdbath, or fill it with soil and make it into a planter. Learn why organic is the only way to grow, plus how-to gardening tips at Marion Stirrup of Kodiak, is recently featured in Organic Gardening magazine and Better Homes and Gardens. Marion also developed PlanTea, the organic tea bag fertilizer. For more information, or to order, contact her at PO Box 1980, Kodiak, AK 99615; 1-800-253-6331 (907-486-2552) or e-mail:

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