Caring for Plants Before Planting

The way you handle trees and shrubs after purchase from a nursery up until the time they are planted can affect the health and survivability of the plant.  It is important to that you have thought about how you will transport them after purchase and where your will store them if they are not going to be planted immediate.

Handling and Transporting Trees and Shrubs

It is important to understand how to handle trees and shrubs.  You should always lift and carry plants by their root ball or container instead of their trunk.  While trees and shrubs grown in plastic containers and boxes are more resilient to rough handling than those with fabric containers or whose root ball is wrapped in burlap, no tree or shrub should be dropped, as this will cause the soil to lose contact with the fine roots making the roots unable to absorb water.  For trees with root balls wrapped in burlap, ensure that they are wrapped tightly so that the soil around the roots do not shift causing roots to break or the root ball to crack.  If the root ball cracks, it will dry out quicker.  You may want to ask the nursery if they can shrink-wrap plastic around the root ball of any balled-in-burlap trees your purchase.

When transporting trees and shrubs in personal vehicles, do not stand them up in the back of a pickup, strap them to the roof of a car, or let them hang out a window.  The wind can damage the plant by breaking branches or causing rapid loss of moisture in the foliage.  Never leave the shrubs and trees in a hot car.

If you are transporting trees and shrubs in large numbers, you should always use an enclosed truck that can keep the temperature in the back below 100° F, even if it means using a truck where the back is air conditioned.  Open trucks can lead to the plants being damaged by the wind as well as losing lots of water through their leaves and twigs causing them to arrive at the planting site in poor condition.  If all you have is an open truck, then ask the nursery to cover the trees in fabric or cloth before loading them to protect them from wind damage during transport.

Storing and Irrigating Trees and Shrubs

You should determine ahead of time whether you will plant the trees and shrubs the day they arrive at the planting site.  If you do not plan to plant them the day they arrive, then a storage should be prepared in advance of their arrival.  It should be in the shade and have protection from the wind.  Depending on whether they are balled-in-burlap or in containers, the root balls may require special irrigation, and this is not something you would typically set up ad hoc.  You will want to do this in advance of their arrival.

Before leaving the nursery, inquire as to how they water the trees and shrubs your purchased.  You will want to know the amount of water applied and the frequency of watering for each type of tree or shrub so that you can continue to water them the same way.  Even a day without water can significantly stress a tree or shrub grown in container.  If they go several days with no water, they can die.

Upon arrival at the planting site, all coverings used to protect the plant’s leaves and shrink-wrapped plastic (if applicable) to protect the roots during transport should be removed.  Failing to do so can lead to excessive heat stress for the plants.  Next, you will need to surround the root balls of all balled-in-burlap plants and shrubs with some material like compost, mulch, soil or even sawdust to keep the roots moist and help the plant absorb water.  If possible, each balled-in-burlap root ball should have one or more drip emitters to slowly water them.  Otherwise, they should be watered slowly with a sprinkler or garden hose so that the water does not simply run off the top of the root ball.  Once the root ball has been saturated, be sure they are not allowed to sit in pools of water.  

If you have purchased bare-root trees, the roots should be wrapped in moist burlap and kept in a shady area until planted.  It only takes a few minutes for fine roots on bare-root trees to dry out if exposed to sun.  The burlap should be kept moist using a sprayer.

When to Plant Trees and Shrubs

Trees and shrubs grown in containers can be planted any time of year if they have well developed root systems.  The same is not true for balled-in-burlap trees.  In the South for example, it is best to plant balled-in-burlap trees in the fall, since their roots will continue to grow throughout the winter, giving them well established roots with spring arrives.  If you do not know when the best time to plant balled-in-burlap trees in your area, inquire at the nursery where you are purchasing the trees.

Preparing to Plant Trees and Shrubs

It is rare that a planting site, once graded, has great soil structure to promote healthy, vigorous growth.  Typically, the landscape beds will need some level of preparation.

It is important that soil used in planting beds have good drainage.  If the soil has poor drainage as with dense clay soil, then plants can develop lots of issues.  Steps should be taken to improve the proper drainage.  This may be as simple as tilling the top foot or so of soil to break up any compacted soil.  Raising the bed 8 to 12 inches above the surrounding landscape grade and subsoiling is often recommended to improve drainage.  Be sure to remove all construction debris such as concrete chunks, pieces of wood, sheetrock, etc. from the beds.  The final grading should direct all excess water away from the beds and off the property.

It is important that you perform soil tests preferably after the beds are prepared but well in advance of planting to allow time for corrective actions should the test reveal something that needs to be fixed prior to planting.  Samples should be taken from several spots around the property from depths of 6 to 8 inches.  The various samples should be mixed to create the sample submitted for testing.  If you suspect that the soil is quite different across the various planting beds, then take samples from each bed.  When you receive the test results, but sure that the pH level of the soil is within the recommended range for the trees and shrubs to be planted.  You can raise the pH of soil that is too acidic using dolomite lime.  You can lower the pH of alkaline soil using sulfur or aluminum sulfate.

You may need to amend the soil with organic materials such as compost, manure, or peat moss if the soil structure and/or drainage is poor.  Such amendments will improve the nutrient and water holding capacity of the soil thus improving the overall tilth of the soil.  Which organic matter should be used and how much depends on the type of trees and shrubs your landscape plan has specified to be grown.   Do not simply add the organic matter in the planting holes, as this encourages the roots to grow only within the hole rather than penetrating the surrounding parts of the bed.  Instead, work the organic material into the soil throughout the root zone of the entire planting bed so the soil is homogenous throughout.  If you are planting in clay soil, you may want to deep till the beds prior to adding the organic matter.