Preparing the Hole
After deciding exactly where the plant will be planted, dig the hole. The hole should be dug twice as wide as the root ball or pot of the plant and about one third to one half again as deep. There used to be an old saying that you shouldn't plant a $2.00 plant in a 25¢ hole. The prices may have changed but the reasoning is still solid. After you have dug the hole, mix in one quarter to one third peat moss or compost with the existing soil. Don't line the hole with the peat or compost, but thoroughly mix it with the existing soil you have removed from the hole.
Put some of your new soil/peat mixture in the bottom of the hole and firm it down. Fill the hole enough so that when you put the plant in the hole the root ball will be at the exact same depth as it was when it was growing in the pot or field. Even ½ of an inch deeper or shallower can make a big difference to the plant. Sometimes it is tempting to put it a little deeper to hide a bump on the trunk or some other reason, but DON'T DO IT. Planting at the wrong depth is the leading cause of dead plants. The soil mixture you just put back in the bottom of the hole needs to be thoroughly firmed to prevent settling later.
Now you are ready to put the plant in the hole. If it is in a pot, take it out. The easiest way is usually to lie it on its side and tap the pot lightly to slide it off. If it is in a burlap, the treatment depends on the type of burlap it is in. Plants in cloth burlaps should be left in them. Plants in plastic burlaps should have them removed if doing so is not going to disturb the root system. If you aren't sure about which type of burlap is on the plant, or whether removing a plastic burlap will disturb the root system on your particular plant, please give us a call. Now place the plant in the hole at the proper depth and position it facing the way you want it. If there are any strings holding the burlap on, these should be removed. If the burlap is wrapped tightly around the stem of the plant, it should be loosened and folded back.
Backfilling and Watering
Now that the plant is positioned in the hole, fill the hole back up about half way with the soil/peat mixture you have made. Put the fertilizer tablets in place in the hole close to the roots, and fill the hole up with water. This not only provides moisture to the roots, but helps settle the soil and eliminate any large air pockets. After the water has soaked in, backfill the hole the rest of the way with the soil and peat mixture, firm it down (firm, not smash as hard as you can) and water again.
Put a layer of mulch on the surface of the soil to help keep weeds down, conserve moisture, moderate soil temperature, and look appealing. A 2 to 3 inch layer of shredded bark mulch works well. Taper it down thinner as it gets closer to the stem of the plant.
Water the newly planted plant about once every 3 to 5 days. The watering interval varies greatly depending on the type of plant, type of soil, amount of rainfall, and amount of sunlight. Plants with a lot of leaf surface planted in sandy soils may need more frequent watering. Dormant or smaller plants in shaded, moist situations may need less frequent waterings. Rarely do trees and shrubs need to be watered every day. However some annuals and perennials need to be checked daily, as their root system can be very small to begin with. When you do water, use enough water to soak in deeply. Two to five gallons or more at each watering should be sufficient depending on the size of the plant. Apply it slowly enough so that it can soak in and not run off. Setting a garden hose for a very slow trickle near the base of the plant is an easy and good method. Newly planted trees and shrubs take anywhere from several weeks to several months to get their root systems established. As the new plant gets established, you can increase the interval between waterings gradually, up to seven days between waterings. Keep up this once per week watering schedule for the rest of the plant's first season.
The fertilizer tablets you put in the hole will supply the plant with nutrition for the first season. After that, you should use Plant-O-Ganic fertilizer, an 8-8-8 fertilizer that is a great slow release source of nutrients. Use this in early spring and late fall (late October to early November) for optimal results. Do not use a 10-10-10 fertilizer, it burns much too easily.
Q: My buddy, who used to work for a landscaper before he got fired, says that I should always break open the root ball and spread the roots out before a plant a tree or shrub. Is this right?
A: There was probably a reason your buddy was fired by the landscaper, and I think I know what it was. NO, you should not break apart or otherwise disturb the root ball when planting. There are a few times that you may need to cut a root or two when planting container grown plants. If some of the roots have grown in a circle around the bottom inside of the pot, these few roots can be cut, but only if they are clearly circling. You do not have to worry about this except on permanent plants such as trees and shrubs.
Q: Last week I heard a radio talk show interviewing a gardener from Oklahoma. The gardener was saying that we shouldn't add any amendments such as peat moss or compost at planting time. But you always tell us to add compost. Are you just trying to sell us something extra?
A: There has been a very limited amount of testing done on some new theories about planting without any soil amendments. It seems to work in some parts of the country and on some soils. But here in Central Massachusetts, we still see much better results with properly used soil amendments. We are not just trying to sell you something extra, we just want to see our plants do well in your yard. In fact, we would love to see you start your own compost pile at home.
Q: Sometimes after I plant a new plant, it will wilt. I water the soil, but it still wilts. A friend of mine used to say to spray the top of the plant with water to keep this from happening. What should I do?
A: Yes, this can be a great way to reduce post transplant wilting. The problem is that the roots can't take up moisture fast enough from the soil, even though it is moist. Plants naturally lose moisture through the leaves. On hot days or on newly moved plants this can result in wilting. Gently misting the leaves of the plant occasionally during the hot parts of the day can cool off the foliage, and also reduce the amount of water that evaporates from the inside of the leaf.
Q: My grandfather used to say to never fertilize a new tree and to always prune one third of a new tree off when it was being planted. Do these still hold true?
A: No, we have learned a lot since then. Any new plant needs a supply of nutrients, but many types of fertilizers can burn the tender roots of a new tree or shrub. A solution that has been developed is to use slow release fertilizer tablets at planting time. These tablets, which cost 10 cents each, can be dropped right in the hole at planting time. They can go right up against the roots and will not burn. They release over a two year period. While not big enough to give the plant 100% of their "USDA Recommendations" for the two years, they are a safe way to get the plant off to a great start.
Now, on to pruning. Without getting too complicated, every time you prune off a branch tip you reduce the plant's ability to produce roots. Most plants have a good root to shoot balance when they leave us. They should not be pruned unless you need to correct a certain problem, or to get them to grow a certain way or size.
Q: Some trees have a sort of wire basket around the soil ball. My uncle says this has to come off so it doesn't strangle the roots. Is this true?
A: In general it is not true. Several researchers have looked at this question and have found that there is usually no harmful effect from leaving the wire basket on. The roots grow around the wire, with the wire eventually ending up inside the root. If you are able, however, it still isn't a bad idea to remove the top part of the wire basket by cutting it. But always wait until the plant is positioned in the hole before doing the cutting. Bolt cutters are ideal, heavy duty wire cutters work OK, but take some effort, tin snips do not work, and don't even think about using a cutting torch!