How To Plant Tree and Shrubs

Plant trees in a hole about twice the size of the rootball

Summary: Planting trees and shrubs happens everyday all year round… it just depends where you live. As with most things there are right ways and wrong ways to do things… plus some best practices. In this article we’ll offer tips, share videos to help make your planting a success and landscape thrive.

One key to successful planting trees is soil testing.

Before proceeding with any planting, you may find it advantageous to have your soil tested.

Check the shrubs you want to buy to see whether they require acid, alkali or neutral soil. It’s a good idea to try to group them accordingly to make fertilizing and feeding simpler. Broad-leaved evergreens, for example, require acid soil.

The planting of shrubs and trees in the landscape is actually the process of transplanting, whether it be stock you purchase from a nursery or native plants which you collect in the woods.

While the ultimate method is and should be the same, there may be some difference at first when you do the planting.

Planting Nursery Grown Plants

Nursery Grown plants usually become established quicker when they are set out than collected plants, bare root or plants which have been “dug up” and relocated.

It is also true that nursery plants will be better shaped than native trees and shrubs from fields or woods. The tops have been pruned for a desirable head, while many of the native plants will require careful pruning to obtain a well-formed plant.

Usually this “training” must be done gradually from year to year by cutting out the ill-shaped and unnecessary wood and encouraging the branches that will ultimately fill in the open spaces and form a strong structural framework.

The failure of a newly set plant to grow results from lack of care in planting unless the roots have been seriously broken or allowed to dry out before planting. Care must be taken to use good soil and to firm it completely around all of the roots.

Other causes of failure include insufficient watering, particularly during the first growing season, insufficient top pruning, or failure to mulch.

Plants that cannot be set or “planted” as soon as they are received from the nursery should be heeled in the ground by digging a trench, placing the roots in the bottom, and covering them with soil.

If the roots are dry, they should be immersed in water for an hour or two before they are “heeled in”. The soil that has been firmed around the roots should be kept moist until it is frozen, or until the plants can be set in their permanent positions.

Planting Native Plants

Note: Many native plants are grown in nurseries these days. This discussion below is on native plants growing in the wild.

These, of course, have grown naturally, without the care given in the nursery. Usually, there is no harm in transplanting some of these to form a part of the home landscape. However, you should keep in mind the natural beauty of these plants, and should refrain from taking those kinds that grow infrequently in the neighborhood.

When a plant is moved, the roots are disturbed and many of them are broken. The broken roots should be cut off with a sharp knife or pruning shears.

The disturbance and decrease of actual absorbing surface of the root system must be balanced by cutting back the top (decreasing the foliage surface) of deciduous plants. Evergreens are moved with a ball of earth on the roots which is wrapped in burlap and or plastic. What is called in the trade as “B&B” – Balled and Burlap.

Planting Deciduous Shrubs

Shrubs to be transplanted from a natural stand or from one part of a home ground to another are taken most safely with a ball of earth on the roots. The size of the ball will vary with the size of the plant.

The average shrub should be transplanted with a ball of earth about one-half the spread of the branches. This is simple enough for plants growing in a clay or clay loam soil.

Shrubs growing in a sandy or gravelly soil are more difficult to move with a ball of earth than are those grown in clay or clay loam because the soil will fall away from the roots as the plant is dug.

However, plants growing in light soils can be more easily dug with a large root system.

A pick or special shovel” is used to cut the roots, thus saving a large portion of the root system. A shovel may also be useful to remove loose soil, but care must be taken not to cut or damage the roots.

If this work is done during a cloudy day, or during a rain, the roots will not dry out while the plant is being moved. If the shrubs must be moved on a sunny day, the soil should be puddled around the roots so the small roots will be covered with this mud.

This precaution should be supplemented by covering the roots with wet burlap to protect them from the sun and wind. Any plant should be set in the new location as soon as possible. In fact, prepare the hole for planting prior to digging the shrub.

Planting Vines

The same process of transplanting as that described for shrubs, applies to vines, except that it is more difficult to determine what size the ball of earth should be.

Obviously, a large vine requires a larger root system than does a small vine. A small vine may require a ball only from 12″ to 18″ in diameter, while a large one may need a 2′ or 3′ ball of earth.

Reasonable judgement should be the best guide. Vines growing in a sandy or gravelly soil should be dug as described for shrubs.

Tree Selection Checklist

1 Size at maturity – Very tall or very wide trees are not suitable for the average, small home lot. While you may feel that a tree that does not reach mature height for 20 or 30 years is no problem, it is better to regard a tree as a permanent addition to the property.

2 Rate of growth – Fast growing trees may be a great temptation particularly when you need shade. but many of them grow with soft wood or shallow roots and are easily damaged in a storm. In addition to the loss of the tree, this might mean personal or property damage. This group includes the poplars, silver maple, willows and Chinese and Siberian elms.

3 Appearance – Do you want an evergreen, a deciduous tree, one that flowers or has berries? Do you have a preference in the type of leaf, or the color of the foliage at different times of the year? The variety of trees that now grow in the United States is so large, about 650 different kinds, that all tastes can be satisfied. Consider also the density of the shade given by the tree, particularly in relation to what you would like to grow under it.

Dense shade will require a ground cover rather than grass.

The shape of the tree is most important in its effect on the total landscaping. Wide, low trees are best for a rambling ranch house. Tall slender trees can make a tall house look lower. Tree shapes vary greatly. The Morton Bay fig tree, for example, grows with a wide head, while the pine oak grows wide at the base and narrows toward the top, like a pyramid.

4 Root system – Shallow-rooted trees are much more likely to be knocked over in a storm than deep-rooted trees. In addition, the root system of the tree largely determines what can be grown under it, and this includes quite a large area as the tree gets older. The Norway maple, for example, spreads a network of roots near the surface and prevents the growth of shrubs or flowers beneath it. If you use a tree with rambling roots it must be set far from walks and septic tank system.

1 Maintenance – Choose a tree that is as free as possible from pests. Spraying tall trees is difficult for the average homeowner.

Small Tree Advantages

There are distinct advantages in moving small trees instead of large ones. The labor involved is important. Large trees require much more time and effort than do small ones.

Also, a small tree recovers from transplanting much more quickly and grows more rapidly than does a large one of the same variety if the soil and moisture are the same.

The only advantage in moving a large tree is the immediate effect obtained. Some persons value this above the more rapid growth of the smaller tree.

A small tree (3″ or less in diameter) can be moved in the same way as shrubs are moved except for the size of the ball of earth.

A general rule to follow to determine the size of the ball to take with a tree is to make the ball of earth 1′ in diameter for each inch of tree-trunk diameter.

This applies to both large and small trees. The diameter of the tree is taken about 1′ above the surface of the ground.

Root Prune Large Trees Before Moving

When a large tree is to be moved from its natural situation, it should be root-pruned at least one growing season before it is moved. This is done during the dormant season by digging a trench, about 5′ in diameter for a 6″ tree and deep enough to sever all of the roots extending into the trench.

Usually a trench 2′ deep will be enough. The trench should be filled with good fertile soil or soil mixed (about 1/4 it volume) with peat moss.

The top of the tree should be trimmed back about one-fourth. This top-pruning should be on all side branches. Usually, one growing season is enough for new root growth.

In the fall or the following spring, the tree may be moved with a reasonable assurance of success by digging a trench just outside the trench previously dug, loosening the roots with an iron bar or a pick, being careful not to damage the new roots.

The exposed roots must be protected… wet burlap works well unless a rainy day is chosen for the work. Decreasing the size of the ball lightens the weight and makes transportation easier.

To move a very large tree, 8″ or more in diameter, special equipment is needed, and trained tree professionals should do the work. A tree up to 6″ in diameter, and with a ball of earth, may be loaded with a bobcat on a flatbed truck.

The method of preparing trees for-transplanting is a long one, but professional nursery personnel can move large trees successfully without this yearlong preparation. They dig a tree with an ample ball of earth and transplant it immediately and at any time of year. Although, root pruning is always my preference.


Evergreens large enough to be used for landscape planting should be dug, moved, and planted with a ball of earth on the roots. This ball of earth usually is wrapped in burlap or similar material and tied tightly with heavy string.

The process of digging them is the same as that described for trees.

The size of the ball of earth is approximately the same as that taken with shrubs for the shrub forms of evergreens and as that taken with trees for the tree forms. Columnar or pyramidal forms of evergreens may require a ball of earth as wide or wider than the spread of the branches.

Season to Transplant

Most hardy trees, shrubs, and vines, if they have been freshly dug and planted within an hour or two, will survive equally well whether planted in the spring or the fall, provided the roots have not been exposed to drying sun and winds.

It has been fairly well established that root growth will not start when the soil temperature is below 40° to 45° F. This includes all of the fall-planting season, from the time the leaves begin to turn to the time the ground is frozen.

It also includes most of the spring-planting season, from the time the frost is out of the ground and the soil is dry enough to be workable to the time growth starts.

Your own local region has its seasons for safe planting and transplanting, and it is a good idea to consult with local nurseries or your state Extension Service to determine the best planting season for you.

Broad-leaved evergreens, such as laurel and rhododendron, are successfully planted either in the fall or the spring, but early spring probably is the safer time.

Narrow-leaved evergreens, such as pine, spruce, juniper, yew, and the like, are best planted early in the spring. Early fall planting is successful also.

Storing Plants Before Planting

Some nurseries sell and plant evergreen shrubs throughout the summer and guarantee the plants. This is done by storing the plants with a ball of earth which is wrapped with burlap and packed in wet peat moss or in loose ground kept moist.

The plants thus remain in a good growing condition until they are planted. Transportation and planting does not disturb the root system to a marked degree, and with a little extra care in watering, the plants do well.

The same done with flowering shrubs and perennials. Large trees are being moved with success in midsummer when the trees are in full leaf.

Although this practice should be reserved for professional nursery personnel, many nurseries carry out this operation with success. The main consideration in the survival of these plants seems to be in giving them enough moisture.

Many times the soil obtained from the excavation for a house has been put on the surface of the ground surrounding the house. This subsoil needs to be improved before it is suitable for plants.

Improving Soil Adding Organic

These soils usually are deficient in organic matter (decomposed vegetable materials), but can be improved by adding well-rotted barnyard manure or peat moss. On a farm the manure is available in quantity, and in the city one can use peat moss.

Of the two materials, peat moss is the better. It retains a larger amount of moisture than does manure, and is free of weed seeds. However, either of these materials can be used to advantage by adding about one-fourth, by volume, to three-fourths of soil.

Storing Plants Before Planting

In a bed destined for shrubs, a 2″ to 3″ layer can be spread over the area and worked into the top 8″” to 12″” of soil.

To prepare the soil for a specimen plant, such as a shade tree, or palm, a single hole is dug large enough to hold the plant, and the soil thus obtained is mixed with one-fourth that amount of wet peat moss.

Wet peat moss mixes much better with the soil than does dry moss, and the results in plant growth will be better.

Acid Soil Plants Require Special Soil

Acid-soil plants require special soil conditions; a moist soil that is acid in reaction and a situation protected from drying winds.

No attempt should be made to set these acid-soil plants in a place that is underlaid with limestone, as it will be almost impossible to keep the soil acid enough for good growth.

Likewise, a location near the base of a house may not be successful because of the lime given off by the cement or mortar in the wall foundation. Some foundation plants of these types, however, have grown well.

Soil that is slightly alkaline in reaction may be changed to acid by mixing with it powdered sulphur in the following amounts:

Acidity at start Sulphur to 100 sq. ft.

Medium acid 2 lbs.

Slightly acid 4 lbs.

Slightly alkaline 7 lbs.

Strongly alkaline Unsuitable for use

This sulfur application can be repeated year after year if a test of the soil indicates that a more acid soil is required for the best growth of the plants.

Permanent Mulch Another Option

Another method is to keep a permanent mulch underneath the plants. This mulch may be composed of acid peat moss, oak leaves, pine needles, tan bark, or well-decayed sawdust. The mulch is applied in the fall, left through the winter, lightly forked into the soil in the spring, and a new mulch is put on immediately.

A bed made to receive a planting of acid-soil plants may be composed of acid woods, dirt that contains a large amount of organic matter. If this is not available, a satisfactory bed can be prepared with equal parts of acid garden loam, acid sand, and acid peat moss. These materials are mixed together before any planting is done.

Setting Bare Rooted Plants

Plants that are delivered, or those that have been dug with bare roots, such as deciduous shrubs and small trees, should be planted at once by digging a hole large enough to allow the roots to be spread out completely.

A plant should be set at the same level it was growing in its previous location. In heavy clay, the plant may be set a little high; in sandy soil or garden loam, it may be a little deeper.

Good soil, free from sod, stones, and large lumps, should be packed firmly around the roots. This may be done with a pick or shovel handle or any similar tamping tool.

If any sub-soil, such as heavy clay, is obtained in the process of digging the hole, this should be spread on top, not placed around the roots. The soil should be mounded around the base of the plant, but should have a concave surface to drain the water toward the roots rather than off to the side.

After a medium or large-sized tree is planted, it is securely fastened with guy wires to keep it from swaying in the wind, which would loosen the roots and cause the tree to lean. Rubber hose or wood slats are used to secure the wires to the tree. These should protect the tree from being girdled.

Setting Plants With Root Balls

Plants that are dug and delivered with a ball of earth on the roots and wrapped in burlap, such as medium sized trees and evergreen shrubs, should be planted at once by digging a hole large enough to have a 6″ to 12″ clearance all around the ball of earth.

The hole for the plant should be from 1″ to 1-1/2″ deeper than the height of the ball of earth.

For best results the soil for the back fill should be mixed with wet peat moss. From 2″ to 3″ of this soil may be shoveled into the bottom of the hole before the plant, with the burlap still around the ball of earth, is set in the hole, and then 2″ to 3″ of fertile soil should be packed around the sides.

The burlap should be cut loose, and tamped on this shallow layer of earth. Care must be taken not to break the ball. The hole should be filled half full of good soil, and the plant watered thoroughly.

After the water has soaked in, the hole is filled with just enough firmed soil to leave a saucer-shaped surface around the base of the plant.

Watering Plants After Planting

After planting, a thorough watering is necessary.

The ground should not be allowed to dry out, at least during the first growing season. If the natural rainfall is not enough to keep the ground moist, artificial watering should be substituted – drip or mirco irrigation is an excellent option.

With most plants, overwatering is as injurious as underwatering, particularly in a heavy clay soil. Many plants will not tolerate an excess of water.

A thorough watering at the time the plant is set helps to settle the soil firmly around the roots and temporarily provides ample moisture for absorption by the roots. A moist soil will also facilitate root penetration.

After planting, a mulch of peat moss, well-rotted manure, straw, or leaves should be spread over the bed to a depth of about 2″ to 3″. If the planting is done in the fall, the manure or other material should be left on the surface of the bed.

This mulch prevents the frost from going to the depth that it ordinarily would and decreases the amount of destructive alternate thawing and freezing in the spring and fall. In the spring, this protecting mulch may be worked into the soil with a spading fork, but care must be taken not to spade deep enough to injure the roots.

In spring planting, the mulch may be applied as it was for fall planting and left on the surface of the ground for a month or two before it is worked into the soil.

Home gardeners use many materials as a mulch for their fruits. flowers, and vegetables. Included are:

  • Leaves
  • Grass or lawn clippings
  • Straw
  • Old Hay
  • Tall wild grasses
  • Waste products
  • Peat moss
  • By products such as sawdust, shavings, and wood-chips, and shredded bark
  • newspapers and corrugated paper. All forms of paper have to be fastened or weighted down

Where To Use Mulch

Generally, the most important considerations in deciding whether to mulch any part of a garden are: initial cost, labor in making the application, whether for annual or perennial crops, weed seeds that may be brought in with the mulch, and the effects on soil temperature and fertility and on insects or diseases.

The most efficient use of mulches is for such perennials as bushberries, some of the shrubs, asparagus, rhubarb, and for the long-season, large-growing vegetables.

Tomatoes, canteloupes, watermelon, sweet corn, peppers, pole beans, cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, and potatoes generally benefit from proper mulching. The mulching of lettuce, onions, spinach, and other quick developing crops is much less helpful because of their short period of growth.

Purposes of Mulch

Apparently, the home gardener’s chief interests in mulches is to prevent the growth of weeds.

Some gardeners use mulches because it saves labor in hoeing or cultivation, and others are mostly concerned with a way to conserve and maintain uniform soil moisture. In some areas drought periods during the summer months usually reduce both the yield and quality of garden crops.

Mulches are a tremendous help in conserving the soil moisture during such dry periods.

Keeping fruit off the soil and clean is particularly important for strawberries, tomatoes, and melons. The influence on the yield and the time of maturity must also be considered.

Some kinds of mulch or the improper use of any mulch may decrease the yield or delay maturity, while another type of mulch used for the same crop might increase the yield by hastening maturity.

Time and Amount To Apply

Any form of mulch helps to prevent the wind and sun from drying the soil surface. This saves soil moisture for the crops. The air just above the soil warms much more rapidly than the soil.

A loose mulch serves as an insulating layer to further slow up the warming of the soil, unless the mulching material is a good absorbent of the sun’s rays. Because of this, the mulches that tend to keep the soil cool should be applied as shallow as possible and still prevent weed growth.

Also, the lighter the application the greater the amount of rain that will reach the root zone of the soil. Thick layers of peat moss, sawdust, and other water-absorbing materials may be detrimental, while thinner layers that would let more water and heat into the soil might be helpful.

Control Moisture and Weeds

Many of the crops on which it is practical to use a mulch both to control weeds and to conserve soil moisture grow better at warmer soil temperatures. This is another reason for not making the mulch any thicker than necessary.

This also means that it is best not to apply the mulching material to the warm-weather crops until the soil is warm. Generally, for tomatoes, sweet corn, and melons it is best to wait until they have a fair start.

Loose mulches can be helpful the year around to control weeds and grass and to retain moisture in asparagus and bushberries.

On annual crops, loose mulches, such as sawdust, peat moss, and many others, can be left in place at the end of the season to be worked into the soil. With heavy applications, it may be more practical to reclaim most of the material by raking it off for use another year.

Slow Decomposing Mulch Uses Nitrogen

Some materials such as peat moss, and the woody by-products, sawdust, wood chips, and planings, decompose rather slowly.

In the early stages of decomposition considerable nitrogen is needed. Extra nitrogen fertilizer should be applied to take care of this need. Usually 1/2 lb. of nitrate of soda or a special-starter fertilizer for each bushel of woody material is enough.

If these materials are not available, the equivalent amount of nitrogen should be applied in a mixed fertilizer such as 5-10-5 if 1 1/2 to 2 lbs. are used. If later on the crops seem to be poor in color, some additional nitrogen should be applied. The fertilizer should be spread as uniformly as possible on top of the mulch.

Slow Decomposing Mulch Uses Nitrogen

Sawdust, shavings, wood chips, and other fine, loose materials are the easiest to apply. From 3 to 10 bushels of sawdust or other loose materials are needed for each 100 sq. ft. of garden surface, depending on the weeds or grasses to be controlled. Six bushels make a loose covering about 1″ thick.

A somewhat thicker layer is needed to control such persistent grasses as quack. The old fears of woody materials making the soil very acid are erroneous. As already indicated, they do take nitrogen from the soil for their decomposition.

This objection is easily, cheaply, and effectively overcome by the application of additional nitrogenous fertilizer as described before. This nitrogen eventually becomes available to the crop plants as the woody material decays.

In the meantime this organic material loosens heavy soils and makes them easier to work and better aerated. The loose sandy soils are helped because they hold water and plant foods better.

One of the first items to protect trees newly planted or being established is with spraying is used to control insects which cause disease to trees.

Spray injury often occurs when plants are sprayed under improper conditions. Injury of this kind can often be avoided by
taking the following precautions:

  • Do not apply winter oil sprays in the fall. Apply winter oil sprays from January 1 until buds swell in the spring.
  • Do not apply winter oil sprays during sudden drops of temperature to below freezing. A good rule to follow is to apply winter oil sprays only when the temperature is above 40° F.
  • Do not apply winter oil sprays on maples, beeches, walnuts, or Japanese flowering which are sensitive to oil injury.
  • Do not spray when the temperature is above 85° F., particularly under high humidity and drought conditions.
  • Do not use any weed killers in the sprayer used for applying fungicides and insecticides.

Protecting Trees

After trees are planted, many must be held in position and their trunks wrapped, in order to aid them to sturdy growth. The methods most widely employed are given here:

Staking and Guying

Very small trees and those growing in sheltered locations may not need help until the roots grow enough to assume the function of holding the tree in position. Usually it is good practice to stake or guy all trees which are 1″ or more in diameter or over 5′ in height.

Perhaps the simplest type of satisfactory bracing for smaller trees is a stake driven into the ground alongside the tree, which is attached by a soft rope or a wire run through a piece of old rubber hose.

Other types of stake supports are made from two stakes planed on opposite sides of the tree. or three stakes may be placed at equidistant intervals around the tree and united by cleats with the tree supported between.

Tree boxes or metal guards. which serve a dual purpose of support and protection, frequently are used on street trees and those subject to mutilation.

Another type of support is furnished by guy wires or cables attached to the tree by running the wires around the tree through a piece of old rubber hose. Three properly placed guys usually are sufficient but it may be necessary occasionally on larger trees to use four guys to provide adequate stability.

The ground end of the guys may be fastened to underground lag or rock deadmen, steel anchors, or heavy stakes. Guy wires are kept tight by twisting the wires or by means of turnbuckles placed in the guys.

When planting is done where there may be danger that persons may trip and fall over guy wires, accidents may be prevented by fencing or by making the wires conspicuous.

Supporting Large Trees

For large trees with heavy tops the best system often includes the use of lag hooks, 7-wire galvanized strand, turnbuckles, and some type of underground deadmen or anchors. Lag hooks screwed directly into the trunk probably are less injurious to the tree than loops through crotches, even if protected by rubber hose guards.

The 7-wire strand and turnbuckles arrangement is strong and readily permits adjustment, and the sunken anchors or deadmen are less liable to displacement than stakes. Three guys, spaced equally around the tree, are generally satisfactory, but especially large trees may require additional support.

The practice of using wooden braces in place of guy wires has little to recommend it. But, if you want to use them, they must be watched carefully as the trees often show definite injury at the point of contact between the wooden brace and the tree trunk.


It is becoming common practice to protect the trunks and larger branches of transplanted trees particularly thin-barked species by means of wrapping.

This serves a triple purpose. It retards transpiration and consequent drying out; it protects the tender bark from direct rays of the sun, thus preventing sunscald; and a paper wrapping helps to prevent borer infestation.

The principal material used for this purpose has been burlap cut into long strips. An especially prepared paper has been developed which appears to have certain advantages over burlap. Both the burlap and the special paper are available in rolls of different widths.

The material is wrapped like a spiral bandage extending from the highest practical point on the trunk to the ground. The material is wrapped preferably from the top down, and on large trees is extended out on the branches.

Each turn should be overlapped one-half the width of the material so that each point on the trunk is covered with a double thickness.

It is advisable to reinforce the burlap or paper wrapping by binding it in place with a stout cord wound spirally in the direction opposite to that of the banding material. The wrapping should be left in place at least 2 years or until it rots off.


Winter and early spring winds may be very detrimental to deciduous plants in cold windy regions where evergreens will not grow. In regions where evergreens can be grown, injury from winds may result in the spring before the ground is thawed, as such winds cause excessive transpiration from the foliage at points of contact.

Suitable screens may be made of burlap or canvas stretched on a wooden framework, or use the rustic woven straw or stake screens. Small evergreens may easily be shielded by setting wooden boxes over them, preferably with the leeward side removed to admit air and light.

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