Planting Trees & Shrubs 101


A few months ago there was a great cover story in the Gardener News about “Mulched Volcanoes”. The article depicted one of the many inaccuracies or misconceptions about how people incorrectly install plant material. Far too often plant material is set into the ground either too high or below grade. Various mulches are used as decorative coverings at a depth, in some cases, of 8-10 inches. Now that the weather is breaking, I thought it be helpful to point out some basic mechanics of how to properly install and care for our green friends.

One of the first things any good garden will have is a plan. Don’t be capricious about placing your larger, future plant material. Leave the bright colors of annuals for your more whimsical plantings. Consideration for sunlight and proximity to surroundings should always be at the forefront of your decision making. Take notice of water issues that are either too wet or too dry and always consider Deer! They simply will punish you if you don’t plan for them.

The debate as to which is better to plant, B&B (Balled and Burlapped) materials or containerized plants will always be a hot topic filled with opinions predicated on past experiences. Either way, the mechanics of slipping the root system back into the ground are the same. Today’s popular belief is to dig a hole slightly larger than twice the size of the root ball. Consider amending your native soil with new top soil, humus or well-rotted leaf compost. Large quantities of humus can help cure heavy clay soil and fast draining sand while making your plants feel as though they are having a spa day. The depth of the hole should not be any deeper than the root ball itself. “It is better to plant slightly higher rather than lower than the tree was growing prior to the move” (Rutgers Cooperative Extension). B&B trees should have the top of the burlap either folded back or I like to cut the top half off all together. Burlap that is not folded or cut off can wick moisture away from the plant. Larger B&B trees will have a wire basket around the root ball. If possible, cut the top half of the cage off. DO NOT TRY TO WRESTLE THE CAGE OFF FROM THE ROOT BALL! This will only create a sloppy root mass and potentially harm the tree, diminishing the success of the tree. The mechanics above should only be done after you have decided that the tree will no longer be moved around. This includes finding the best side of the tree and rotating the ball to that position. After all is said and done, remember to mulch around your plant material at a depth of 2 to 3 inches keeping the mulch away from the bark of the plant. Stake larger plant material and avoid getting too close with the lawn mower or treading to heavily over the root systems.

Deep watering is also important. Sprinkler systems only target the top few inches of soil line. Don’t rely too heavily on them unless you have specific zones for landscape beds and zones for turf. The best way to water plants is to apply it at a rate that the soil will absorb without runoff.

When you select plants this spring remember to select well proportioned plants. Avoid root balls that are abnormally small, dented or loose from the plant. By the same token, containerized material should not have roots spiraling around the top of the pot or have roots growing out the drainage holes on the bottom of the pot. Inspect the foliage and limbs of plant material. Bright, healthy looking foliage is what you’re after. Plants that are losing leaves, turning yellow or brown or look fatigued or stressed should be avoided. You spend the time weekly to inspect produce at a supermarket so be discriminating on your plant purchases as well. After all your plant purchase will last far longer than a meal will.

Finally, remember that April 27, the last Friday in April, is Arbor Day. Hopefully this article will inspire you to become a “Tree Hugger.” Take the time to further your education and visit The website provides great tips, including tree care and planting as well as a terrific identification guide. The National Arbor Day Foundation currently has on their site 10 free trees when you become a member. An incentive to help contribute to the 8.5 million trees members planted last year.