Did you know that the average life span of an ornamental landscape plant is a mere 7 years? Considering how many thousands of dollars are invested in plantings around most homes it is a wonder that consumers don’t put more effort into the planting and maintenance of valuable ornamentals.

The most critical aspect of plant care is installation.  It is the goal of this article to familiarize folks with the appropriate planting techniques to ensure the proper maturation of their trees and shrubs. Most of you will not be doing the planting yourselves.  However, it is important to demonstrate your knowledge and expectations to whoever is installing your landscape.  Unfortunately, improper planting by commercial firms is a fairly widespread occurrence and commonly results in the premature death of a high percentage of ornamentals each year.

Before planting, review the site to determine local conditions.  Imagine your plants in their  mature state.  This will help to prevent over-planting, obscured interior lighting, and obstructed growth from existing plant material.  Depending on how much input you will have in the planting process you may want to examine moisture and lighting conditions as well.  This will help determine the proper selection of plant species.

Always be sure to inspect your stock before planting. Nurseries give deep discounts for damaged stock, and damaged stock usually results in a short life span.  Be sure to look for splits, bark wounds, and cankers.  Also check for bare areas and examine the overall symmetry of the plantings.  Ask yourself: will this plants growth result in the desired shape with normal pruning?

Balled and burlapped trees and shrubs can be planted at any time. Nurseries usually dig up plantings under favorable conditions to minimize shock, and will store them until such time that they can be sold and planted. True transplanting, where existing specimen is excavated and moved is best performed during the dormant season to reduce transplant shock.  Of critical importance to successful planting is the proper positioning of the root ball.  Approximately 90% of plants feeder roots are in the top foot of soil.  By ensuring that the root ball is about two inches above the surrounding soil surface you will allow the root system to develop where it can receive moisture and nutrients with ease. Digging the hole too deep is easy to do. Unfortunately, plants that are planted too deep will suffocate due to a lack of oxygen, and decreased nutrient uptake.

Dig the hole to a size 1/3 greater than the root ball.  Fill the hole half full with water, install the plant, and then back fill with good earth and any soil amendments.  Amendments such as peat moss, cow manure, and bone meal worked into the soil will ensure a nutrient rich environment.  Avoid using soluble fertilizers for first year. Soluble fertilizers will stress the plant by encouraging new growth adding additional strain to the plants energy reserves.  Mix the soil to a thick muddy consistency around the root ball using your shovel and hose. Ensure that there are no air pockets around the roots, which will result in localized damage to the canopy.

Be sure to cut the twine, which secures the burlap around the trunk and pull the burlap back to expose the entire top of the root ball.  This will prevent girdling and allow the surface roots to develop quickly.  Remove all twine from around the tree and encourage the limbs into a natural position.  Prune out any broken limbs back to a parent stem and in the same manner, remove stubs left over from previous pruning. Resist the temptation to remove anything else for the first year.  Once established an ongoing program of corrective pruning and shaping can be undertaken.

The single most important aspect of post-planting maintenance is an adequate but not excessive supply of moisture.  Plantings should be watered weekly and deeply during dry periods for the first year or two.  Irrigation is not necessary when adequate natural rainfall is available.  Building a low dike around the outside of the hole will help the water penetrate to where it is needed.

A thick layer of mulch around your planting will aid in moisture retention.  Keep in mind however, that adding mulch to your shrubbery beds year after year without periodic removal will result in the eventual suffocation of some plantings. A good rule of thumb is to keep the root flares exposed.  Mulching above the root flares is counterproductive.

Staking is usually not necessary.  Stake a plant only if it is wispy, in shallow soil, or in a high wind location, and be certain to remove all stakes and cables after one year.  If allowed to grow indefinitely, cables will girdle the tree, resulting in the death of all tissues above that point.

Even with proper planting some trees and shrubs take longer to recover.  White pines commonly take a few years before attaining the desired look, and hemlocks seem to be more sensitive than most plants. Finally, consider planting smaller trees, they cost much less than larger specimens, and recover faster.  Five years down the road they will likely be the same size.

Written By: Terence Boots
Massachusetts Certified Arborist
Owner: Emerald Acres Inc.