University of Maryland Extension

Planting Process

Get the Plants Home in Good Condition

Protect your plants from nursery to landscape

  • keep the roots moist
  • cover tops with tarps or plastic to prevent drying
  • protect tree trunks from damage loading and unloading

Plant woody ornamentals as soon as possible. If planting is delayed, protect roots from excessive exposure to sun and wind. To avoid breaking fine roots, always lift plants by their container or root ball, not by their stems or trunk.

Planting is simple when soil conditions are correct for plant growth. Dig a hole large enough to accommodate the plant’s roots, place the roots in the hole, and cover with soil. However, when soil conditions are not favorable, you must improve them before planting. Poor soil conditions account for the majority of woody ornamental problems.

Soil Preparation

Soil modification area 

Ideally the soil should be in good condition over as much of the future root zone of the plant as possible. Mature trees and shrubs will develop root systems that extend 50 percent beyond their drip line. For example, a tree with a branch spread of 30 feet has a root zone area with a diameter of 45 feet. Most woody ornamentals have root systems that extend downward approximately 12 to 18 inches. Improve your soil to this depth.

illustration of tree roots
Typical tree root system in good natural soil

properly planted tree
Properly planted and mulched tree

Where soil conditions are extremely compacted or poorly drained, the minimum area to modify is approximately 100 square feet per tree and 25 square feet per shrub. In such situations, consider planting in “island beds”. Trees and shrubs grown in “island” plantings tend to be healthier than those planted singly.

Soil chemistry 

Make sure your soil has the proper pH and no serious nutrient deficiencies. Find out more about Soil Testing.

Soil structure 

Make sure your soil structure is not compacted and permits satisfactory aeration and water drainage. Correct any problems prior to planting. Generally, loams and sandy loams provide the best soil structure for plant growth.
Modification of poorly structured soils involves two parts:

  1. physically loosening the soil
  2. adding organic matter to maintain and improve structure over time.

When to plant

Late-winter through mid-spring and early through mid-fall, are the best times to plant woody ornamentals. Some plants are difficult to transplant, and these should be limited to spring planting. Those recommended for spring planting include birches, dogwoods, European hornbeams, hawthorns, golden raintree, magnolias, oaks, flowering pears, poplars, sourwood, sweet gum, tulip tree, willows, and zelkova.  While broadleaf evergreens are best planted in the spring, some like mountain laurel, boxwood, and hollies can be planted in the early fall if they are given deep watering and a thick acid mulch. Be sure to keep all newly planted trees and shrubs well watered throughout the first year, even in the winter. But do not water when the ground is frozen.

The Planting Hole

The idea of making the planting hole soil “ideal” by adding compost and organic matter seems a smart way to treat a newly planted tree or shrub. However, a new tree or shrub will eventually develop a root system that extends far beyond the original planting hole. Therefore, the condition of the soil in the immediate planting hole has little influence on the long term growth of the plant. In some situations, where the soil surrounding the planting hole is compacted, amending the planting hole soil can be detrimental because it encourages the root growth to remain within the planting hole rather than spreading outward. Plants often “drown” in these holes because organic matter holds water like a sponge, while the surrounding clayey soil is slow to drain.


 Newly planted trees and shrubs do not benefit from fertilization. Although this seems contrary to common sense, research studies show most of a plant’s energy is directed at root growth during the establishment period. The application of nitrogen during this period seems to suppress root growth rather than enhance it. Newly planted trees do not require fertilization for one to three years and possibly not at all if they are putting out sufficient new growth and the tree canopy is full.

The Planting Process

Bare root plants

Soak roots in water prior to planting. Inspect roots and remove any dead, diseased, broken, or twisted roots. Dig the planting hole large enough to easily accommodate all of the healthy roots. The hole should be deep enough to allow three or four inches of soil to be placed under the roots. Spread the roots out in the planting hole and place the plant at the same depth at which it had grown in the nursery. You’ll see a discernable soil line mark on the lower trunk or stem. Fill in the soil around the roots and firm the soil to eliminate air pockets.

Balled and burlapped/Wire Baskets

Dig the planting hole as deep as the height of the root ball and twice as wide as the width of the root ball. If the hole is too deep the weight of the ball will cause it to sink. Carefully lower the root ball into the planting hole. Avoid breaking or cracking the soil around the roots within the burlap. Once the tree has been placed in the planting hole and set to the desired orientation, remove any cords around the root ball and cut the burlap loose. The burlap can be completely removed or cut away at least half way down the root ball. Some burlap is treated to retard rotting, and some root ball wraps are plastic or synthetic burlap. These should always be removed. 

If the tree’s root ball was enclosed in a wire basket, cut off and remove, or fold down the top half of the basket before backfilling the hole. No burlap or basket should be visible above the soil once the planting hole has been filled. 

Container grown plants 

Slide the plant out of or cut the container down the sides to free the root system. Firm, healthy roots should be visible around the outside of the root ball. Container plants establish faster if you disturb the “around the pot” growth direction of the roots. Use a sharp knife or blade to cut four one-inch-deep cuts the length of the root ball.  New roots will rapidly grow from the cut areas of the roots. Dig the planting hole deep enough to accommodate the plant with the top of the root ball level with, or just slightly above, ground level. Fill in soil around the root ball and firm the soil to eliminate air pockets.

After planting, shape the soil to create a shallow depression one-third larger than the diameter of the root ball with a slightly raised berm around the periphery. Fill the depression with water. This permits water to go straight to the root zone rather than run off the surface. Thorough soaking after planting eliminates air pockets around roots. Avoid covering the top of the root ball with more than one to two inches of soil. Otherwise, water may be diverted sideways through the native soil and not soak down into the root ball, where it is needed.


Although you strive to place plants in the best possible locations, there comes a time when you decide a plant has to be moved. You can transplant small trees or shrubs from one location to another. Transplanting large trees, those with a trunk diameter of two inches or more, is more difficult and may require a landscape professional.  

When to Transplant

Transplant trees and shrubs when they are dormant. In Maryland, there are two transplanting seasons: mid to late fall, and late winter to early spring. Always consider weather and soil conditions in determining when to transplant. Postpone planting in late fall or late winter if the weather conditions are unusually cold and the ground is frozen.   

Root Pruning

Two years (ideally but at least 6 months to a year before the move) before transplanting a tree or shrub, start pruning roots in early fall. Root pruning is done in stages in a circle around the tree. Determine the radius of the root pruning circle by measuring out from the trunk eight inches for each inch of trunk diameter, measured at four feet up the trunk from the ground. For shrubs, the root pruning circle has a radius that equals one-third the distance from the center of the shrub to its outer branches. For a shrub with branches that extend out from the center to a distance of 30 inches, the root pruning circle has a radius of ten inches. Draw the root pruning circle around the plant using sand, lime, or outline with a hose, string, or a rope.

Cut straight down eight to ten inches deep with a spade, around two-quarters of the pruning circle, on opposite sides of the plant. During the second year, cut around the remaining two-quarters of the perimeter of the root pruning circle. This process cuts roots completely around the plant and encourages new roots to grow at the point of the cuts. The plant will be dug and moved in the third year.  

Moving and Replanting

When you are ready to move your root-pruned plant, dig a trench in a circle starting six inches further out than the root pruning circle.  Dig down 12 to 18 inches. When the trench is complete, cut under the plant to loosen the ball of soil and roots. Slide a piece of burlap or plastic under the root ball. Grasp all four corners of the burlap or plastic and lift the soil ball out of the hole. If you are moving the plant to a site some distance away, wrap the burlap or plastic tightly around the soil ball and secure with rope. 

Once dug, relocate the plant to its new site as soon as possible. The longer the plant is out of the ground, the greater the chance of failure. Prepare the soil at the new location in advance, and move and replant as quickly as possible. Follow the same planting and post planting procedures used for new woody ornamentals for transplanted plants.  

For a radical change, consider converting your lawn to a forest. View Nevin Dawson's video below.

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