Gardening: Planting 101
Last updated in May 2019
You can learn a lot about how to plant specimens and care for them both from great garden centers and from websites and books. Here’s how to avoid common errors.
- When transporting foliage-bearing plants, don’t expose them to the wind; it rapidly dries them out. If you load them into your trunk with foliage protruding, cover them with burlap or similar material.
- Keep plants in the shade, and prep your holes before you uncover them. Then plant quickly, before they can dry out.
- Carry plants by the root ball or container—not the stem—so that the weight of the soil and root mass does not cause the stem to break away from the plant. Don’t drop plants; the ball might split.
- Don’t plant too deep. Plant shrubs such as azaleas and rhododendrons so that the root ball is slightly above grade, with soil built up around it. Putting this type of plant in a deeper hole can smother feeder roots. In addition, the hole serves as a cup, holding water around the roots and drowning the plant. When planting any tree or shrub in holes dug deeper than the root ball, allow for the plant to settle as the soil is compacted. Avoid placing soil on top of the root ball.
- For most plants, the hole should be three to five times as wide as the root ball, to allow roots to spread into the well-aerated, soft soil backfilled into the hole. Otherwise, depending on soil type, the untilled soil may serve as a pot, containing the roots and forcing them to wrap around themselves.
- In general, leave natural burlap on a “balled and burlapped” plant while you place it in the hole; then fold it back when the hole is half full so that it is not exposed above the ground. Remove ropes, wires, and fabrics containing plastic fibers.
- When container-grown plants come out of pots with a tight ball of fibrous roots growing in a circle around the inside of the pot, cut roots to allow outward growth. Otherwise, the roots will continue to grow in a circular pattern; years later you will be able to pull the plant out of the ground just as if it were still in the pot—and eventually the plant may strangle itself. One good approach is to cut a deep “X” in the bottom of the root ball, extending the cuts about one-fourth of the way up the ball; then pull the four sections of the bottom out to the sides, forming four legs. Then make two or three cuts with your knife about one-half inch deep down the sides of the ball to break the circular flow of the root fibers.
- Opinions differ on the best way to backfill planting holes. One approach is to use a mix of soil to which you have added about one-third organic matter, such as compost, composted manure, peat, or shredded bark. But some argue that plants do better if you backfill with the same soil you’ve removed, so that the roots will grow into surrounding soil rather than into a rich backfilled mix. It’s most important not to add too much organic matter, because it may become soggy by absorbing water from denser soil around the hole.
- When planting, fertilize with starter fertilizer to stimulate root growth. Small amounts of nitrogen can help sustain vigor in root development, but high-nitrogen fertilizer can force excessive leaf, shoot, and branch growth before the roots are ready to sustain it.
- Prune away dead and diseased branches.
- Before watering, firm the soil in the hole. Build a circular dam outside the root periphery, forming a “saucer” three to four inches deep. Fill the saucer with mulch. Then water thoroughly and slowly. After that, water only as the soil dries out. Check with a soil probe or a moisture meter, available at garden supply stores. Consistent, even watering is one of the most significant factors in a plant’s survival and success in the first two or three years after transplanting.
- The best planting times are spring and fall, when air temperature is cooler, sunlight less intense, rainfall more consistent, and cool soil temperatures encourage root growth.