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The Right Start to Healthier Shrubs and Trees

The success of new landscape plantings depends on how you plant them.

Root ball and shovel Improperly planted plants are far less able to cope with adverse conditions such as disease, insect attack, and drought. Extension gives some tips on how to get the most out of your plants.

Plant at the Right Time

Early spring through mid-May and September until mid-October are ideal planting times in the Pennsylvania growing area.

Dig the Hole Extra Wide

The hole should be at least twice as wide as the root ball. It is important for any plant to be able to spread its roots out away from the crown or trunk. If the hole is too narrow, these roots will tend to stay in a small mass, sometimes circling the plant and actually strangling it.

Do Not Make the Hole Too Deep

All plants have a spot where the roots begin to flare out. This spot should be even with or a little above the soil level. When a plant is too deep in the soil, it becomes susceptible to disease and rot. Some gardeners make the hole deep thinking they want to loosen the soil for the new plant. Then, after watering, the soil settles, taking the plant with it. Dig the hole wide, not deep. Place the plant on solid ground and backfill around it for best results.

Soak the Root Ball in a Bucket of Water While Preparing the Hole

This gives the plant time to absorb its fill of water, which will help reduce the chance of transplant shock.

Untangle the Roots

Use your fingers or a hand cultivator to untangle the roots. Remove all packaging material such as twine, burlap, and baskets from trees. Some experts are now recommending washing off all the soil and planting it bare root.

Backfill with the Soil that Came From the Hole

Most experts agree that, especially in the case of trees, you should not improve the soil in the hole as you backfill. The idea behind the theory is that if the improved soil in the hole is too inviting, the roots will remain tight to the trunk and not spread out properly. Instead of improving the soil in a small hole, think about improving the overall site before planting. Do a soil test to determine what nutrients are missing, then add organic matter or a fertilizer containing those specific nutrients to the entire site. If you are planting within an established garden and all the soil has been amended with organic matter, this is not an issue.

Water Thoroughly

Always water the new plant thoroughly, even if the soil is already a little moist. The water helps the soil settle and eliminates large air pockets that can kill the plant. Water as you backfill, then gently tamp down the disturbed soil around your newly planted perennial, shrub, or tree.

Continue to Water Weekly Through October

New transplants need consistent water for at least the first year, and maybe more, until their root systems are fully established. In our area, deep watering once a week beats more frequent shallow watering.