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Learning to Plant a Tree or Shrub - Parts 1 and 2

Recently, Wayne Mezitt* of Weston Nurseries wrote a piece about how to plant trees and shrubs in the landscape. I recommend you print these guidelines and have them in the yard for reference while you're planting. 

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In most regions, plants available for sale are grown in one of two ways: In containers, or in the field. To prepare a field-grown plant for sale, the grower digs up the plant and wraps its soil root ball in burlap. Such a plant is called a “B+B” plant (balled and burlapped). After you take these plants home, they can sit there uninstalled for days or weeks, providing you maintain adequate moisture for the roots. Water them thoroughly daily until you plant them. Always handle plants by their roots, not just their tops.

Balled and Burlapped Trees and Shrubs Planting Guidelines, Container Grown Trees and Shrubs Planting Guidelines) For best performance, it is critical that the plants be installed at the proper depth. Both container and B+B plants must end up with the top of the root system, or “root flare”, at final ground level. Planting too deep is the most common cause of poor performance.
Dig the hole three times as wide as the root system of the plant you are installing, but NO DEEPER than the root system. Slope the sides as shown in the diagrams. Evaluate the soil you remove to determine whether soil amendments will be needed.


Newly installed plants establish best when their roots grow quickly into the surrounding soil. For B+B plants, cut away and remove the top 1/3 of the rope, burlap and wire basket (if any). Use your judgment on how much to remove so that the integrity of the root system is sufficiently maintained to support the top of the plant. Make sure the final soil level will be no higher than the root flare or top of the root system.

For container plants, gently remove the pot from the root system by placing it on its side and coaxing the roots out. Handling by the roots, place the plant in the hole and adjust so the final soil level will be no higher than the top of the root system. Container-grown plants must have their outer inch of roots that came in contact with the container loosened by raking, or even cutting them with a knife if they are heavily bound. Don’t worry about being too rough because the roots will quickly regenerate in their new environment. Because the nursery has grown them in lighter soils than that in your landscape, failure to adequately loosen the roots is the most frequent cause of problems with installing container grown plants.

Research has determined the best results come from backfilling with soils similar to those in which the roots will grow. If amendments are needed in particularly sparse soils, make sure the final mixture is comprised of no more than 25% of peat moss or compost. Mix in a handful or two of bone meal or superphosphate, which encourages root development. Tamp the soil firmly around the root systems to hold the plant securely. Construct a 1-to-3 inch high water-retaining saucer a foot or more from the center of each plant. This helps assure adequate moisture gets to the root zone for the first season.

Immediately after backfilling, add water to thoroughly soak and assure root contact with the surrounding backfill soil. Fill the saucer with water daily for the first week, and then make sure the new plantings get one inch of water weekly for the first season. It is important the roots go into winter adequately, but not overly, moist. Add mulch to a depth of about 2 inches, following the diagram and assuring the soil immediately around the base of the plant remains exposed to air. Stake the plant only if the rootball is unstable, and be sure to remove any stakes after one year.

Landscaping is a long-term process, and the most satisfying results develop over a number of seasons. Applying these basic principles will help optimize your investment and add to the lasting value of your property. What other investment so effectively maximizes the year-round enjoyment of the personal spaces around your home to provide decades of satisfaction? Make sure you take the time to sit back with your family and appreciate what you’ve accomplished each time you add to your landscape.

*R. Wayne Mezitt is the chairman of Weston Nurseries of Hopkinton, MA and a Massachusetts Certified Horticulturist. He has served as president of the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association, the New England Nursery Association, and the American Nursery and Landscape Association, based in Washington, DC.

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