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Step by Step: How to properly plant trees and shrubs

April 1, 2015 -  By

Planting a tree or shrub that will be healthy for years to come requires proper planning, selection and installation.

-Start by looking at the site conditions to evaluate soil volume, drainage, growth restrictions (above and below ground), shading, soil pH and nutrition. Use that information to find a tree or shrub that will thrive in the setting.

-The keys to a good planting hole are depth, diameter and backfill consistency. Depth should relate directly to the tree’s root flare or topmost lateral root. This topmost lateral root should be positively identified and set flush with surrounding soil grade or slightly higher than surrounding grade after the tree has fully settled.

-The planting hole should measure two to three times larger than the diameter of the widest portion of the tree’s root ball. Scarify the sidewalls of the planting hole to help with root penetration.

-Pulverize the soil removed from the hole to use as backfill. Soil amendments, if used, should never exceed 20 percent of the total backfill volume.

-Before standing the tree up in the hole, remove hardware, stakes or shrink wrap. If the tree was container-grown, remove the container and address all circling roots as needed by shaving, slicing or selectively cutting. For field-grown trees, remove the strapping and at least the top third of the burlap wrap and wire basket. (Removing all is optimal, but if the root ball is unstable, some material may need to remain.)

-Handling the tree or shrub primarily by the root ball, stand it up level in the planting hole and stabilize it by layering the bottom third of the hole with prepared backfill. Water in the first layer of backfill and level the tree. Continue layering, watering and leveling—adjusting the tree by the root ball as necessary.

-Once settled, cover the entire backfill and root ball area with a 2- to 3-inch deep layer of mulch or pine straw. Mulch should not contact the tree’s trunk.

Step 1

Dig a hole that’s deep enough for the root flare to be lined up with or slightly higher than the soil grade. The width should be two to three times larger than the widest diameter of the root ball.


Step 2

Handle the plant by its root ball, and stand it up level in the hole. Layer the bottom third of the hole with pulverized soil. Water this layer. Continue layering, watering and leveling the tree or shrub.


Step 3

Cover the backfill and root ball area with 2 inches to 3 inches of mulch or straw. Don’t let the mulch touch the tree’s trunk.


Source: Colin Conner, city forester, Hoover, Ala.

Illustrations: David Preiss

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