Planting for success: tips and techniques

In only a few short weeks, the prime fall planting season will be upon us, and now is the perfect time to plan.

Whether you hope to begin a major re-landscaping project or merely want to add a plant or two to your garden, consider the words of the late Kenyan social and environmental activist and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai: “Anybody can dig a hole and plant a tree. But make sure it survives. You have to nurture it, you have to water it, you have to keep at it until it becomes rooted so it can take care of itself.”

It’s not uncommon for gardeners and landscapers to dig a just-wide-enough hole, wrench a plant from its nursery pot, and shove it unceremoniously into the ground. Sadly, this haphazard treatment makes it harder for the plant to thrive or survive later on.

While soil type, location, irrigation, and fertilization all play a role in a plant’s eventual health, proper planting techniques are instrumental in giving newly chosen foundation plants—perennials, shrubs, and trees—the best possible start.

Here’s a brief planting guide, beginning with a few important rules to follow when digging a planting hole:

  • The hole should be two to three times the width of the plant’s root ball. This creates a zone of loose soil for easier root penetration and establishment.
  • The hole should be shallow enough that the root ball can be set on undisturbed soil. This gives the plant a stable surface to rest upon and prevents later soil settling beneath the plant.
  • The hole should have an irregular shape with rough sides, to promote root growth into the surrounding soil. Round, smooth-sided holes encourage roots to circle within those limits, which eventually leads to a weaker plant.
  • Always call 811, the free underground service alert number, several days before any project that involves digging. This allows utility companies time to mark their buried facilities and helps you avoid potential damage or injury.

Severely constricted, encircling roots on a container grown tree (Dakota County Technical College)

After the hole is prepared, carefully remove the plant from its container, tapping the outsides to loosen it. Never pull the plant by the trunk or branches. Gently loosen the roots along the sides and the bottom by hand, or score the root ball with a few shallow, vertical cuts using a sharp, sterilized tool. Cut off any encircling or badly damaged roots. (Don’t buy plants with crowded roots that encircle the pot or emerge from the drainage holes, because this indicates a stressed, poor quality root system.) Then, set the plant in position, ensuring that it’s centered in the hole, leveled, and at the correct depth.

Proper vertical positioning of a plant within the planting hole is critical. Pay close attention to the crown of the shrub or the flare of the tree, the place where the main stem or trunk widens and the roots emerge. The crown or the base of the flare should rest at the same level as the surrounding soil line. A plant set too low, with its crown or flare buried, will be susceptible to rot. A plant set too high, with the upper surfaces of the main roots exposed, will quickly dry out and suffer permanent root damage.

Once the shrub or tree is properly positioned in the planting hole, begin backfilling the hole with the soil originally dug out, breaking up any large clods into smaller pieces before doing so. This helps prevent large air pockets from forming around the root ball, which can in turn dry out roots and lead to future ground depressions as the soil settles.

When backfilling the planting hole, first be sure to fill any gaps between the root ball and the base of the hole. Pushing the soil into place by hand is the most effective way to do this, because this is the best way to feel for voids.

Continue filling the hole in stages on all sides to help keep the plant in position and the soil level even. Periodically tamp down the soil to eliminate air pockets; do this firmly, but not so hard that the soil is compacted.

Contrary to popular belief, the soil removed from a planting hole should NOT be amended with additional organic matter; the material used to backfill the planting hole should be the same as the surrounding soil. Why? If nice, rich soil is used to fill the hole, newly spreading roots will stay in the “comfort zone” and the plant will never develop a healthy, widely spread root system in the poorer, native soil. (Note: Amending soil throughout a large site is an entirely different topic.)

Water a newly installed plant immediately after it’s in the ground. If the hole is large or deep, it’s best to water in several stages during the backfill process, to ensure that the soil is appropriately moistened. Use only enough water to dampen the soil; it should not be saturated.

Generally speaking, foundation plantings shouldn’t be given an initial fertilizing until after several weeks of establishment. This allows plants time to recover from the stress of planting without being forced into a too-sudden period of growth.

For more specific guidance, see UCANR Publication 8046, Planting Landscape Trees or the UC California Garden Web site about planting shrubs and vines.

For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or use our website.

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