How to Plant Trees and Shrubs

Much care should be taken when planting trees and shrubs to ensure they are planted at the correct depth and watered appropriately. These are the two most common errors made during planting, and they are easily avoided.

How Deep Should Trees Be Planted?

The proper depth for planting trees depends on how well the soil drains. In well drained soil, the hole should be dug just deep enough for the top of the root ball to be even with the soil surface of the planting bed. Do not disturb the soil below where the root ball is to sit as the loose soil will cause the root ball to sink lowering the top of the root ball below the surrounding soil level. In poorly drained or compacted soil, the hole should be dug such that the top of the root ball extends 2 to 4 inches above the surrounding soil surface. Again, the soil beneath the root ball should not be disturbed to prevent the root ball from sinking. Because it extends above the surrounding soil surface, the top root ball may be prone to drying out and require additional irrigation, preferably with drip line emitters, until the plant’s roots are well established. The diameter of the hole should be at least two times large than the diameter of the root ball, but preferably as much as five times larger.

How to Prepare and Set a Root Ball

The next step is to prepare and set the root ball. The details differ based on the production method used to grow them

Planting Container-Grown Trees and Shrubs

If the tree or shrub was container-grown, then it is just a matter of watering the plant, removing it from the container, and placing it in the hole. If there are roots circling the ball, then cut them off to prevent them from choking the trunk as the plant matures. If the tree or shrub is potbound, then make cuts in the root ball one to two inches deep from the top of the ball to the bottom. This should be done in three or four places around the root ball to promote the growth of roots along the sides of the root ball into the surrounding soil rather than new roots primarily growing from the bottom of the root ball.

Planting Field Grown Trees Balled-in-Burlap

If a tree was field grown and balled-in-burlap, you need to determine whether the burlap is natural which is biodegradable or synthetic which is not biodegradable. A simple lighter test will give you the answer as natural burlap burns and synthetic burlap melts.

Planting Synthetic Balled-in-Burlap Trees

If it is determined that the burlap is synthetic, then it must be completely (and carefully) removed from the root ball. When tipping the tree to remove the synthetic burlap from underneath the ball, lift the root ball from the side to lay the tree onto its side rather than pushing on the trunk to tip it over which could crack the root ball. If there is a wire basket over the synthetic burlap, remove the basket and the burlap if possible. If the lower half of the wire basket must remain, then cut an “X” in the burlap in each section of the basket to allow moisture in and roots to get out.

Planting Natural Balled-in-Burlap Trees

If the burlap is natural, it is biodegradable and will breakdown over time. So, it is typically okay to leave natural burlap on the bottom and sides of the root ball, but it should always be removed from the top, because it repels water when dry. If the planting site is poorly drained, then it should also be removed from the sides and bottom as well to prevent it from holding in too much moisture.

Backfilling with Soil Once Root Ball is Set

Once the tree or shrub’s root ball has been set in its hole, the rest of hole will need to be backfilled. The best backfill to use is the soil removed from the hole. Before returning the soil to the hole, break up any clods as these could hinder airflow, plant growth, and the establishment of the root system. Then fill the hole halfway with backfill soil. Tamp the backfill down with your foot, but do not compact the soil. Then fill the hole the rest of the way, lightly tamping the backfill down again. Using a garden hose, water the soil all around the hole to settle it further. Make sure the backfill soil is brought up to the level of the surrounding soil.

If you to use a drip irrigation bag or drip lines with emitters to water the plants slow over an extended period, then install them and you are done. Otherwise, create a three-inch-high ring of soil on the surface of the planting bed around the edge of the root ball to collect and direct irrigation water down onto the root ball during the first couple of growing seasons. This should be removed after two growing seasons.