University of Maryland Extension

Planting a Tree or Shrub

Key Points

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 if plants are travelling in the back of a truck.
  • Protect tree trunks from damage loading and unloading.
  • Always lift plants by their container or root ball, not by their stems or trunk.

Plant woody ornamentals as soon as possible. If planting is delayed, water them regularly and protect roots from excessive exposure to sun and wind.

It is not necessary to prune an ornamental tree before, or immediately after planting unless you are removing broken or damaged branches. Research shows that it is not necessary to prune top growth to compensate for the lack of roots. Leaves are needed for photosynthesis to produce energy for root growth.

Soil Preparation

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 a large percentage of woody ornamental problems.

Soil modification area 

Ideally, the soil should drain well and be fertile 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.

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

properly planted tree
Properly planted and mulched tree

Trees and shrubs will more easily establish root systems in soils that are well-aerated and well-drained. Where soil is compacted or poorly drained, the minimum area to modify is approximately 100 square feet per tree and 25 square feet per shrub. When compaction is relatively mild, you can loosen the soil by driving a garden fork into the subsoil and rocking it back and forth. Lift the fork out of the soil, move 8 in. to 12 in. and repeat. Mix 1 in. to 2 in. of compost into the planting area soil it’s high in clay or sand. 

If compaction is more severe, consider planting in “island beds”. Trees and shrubs grown in “island” plantings tend to be healthier than those planted singly.

It’s good to test your soil before planting to measure soil pH and nutrient levels. Find out more about Soil Testing.

When to Plant

  • Late-winter through mid-spring (April) and early-fall through mid-fall, are the best times to plant woody ornamentals. These plants are difficult to transplant, and should only be planted in spring: birches, dogwoods, European hornbeams, hawthorns, golden raintree, magnolias, oaks, poplars, sourwood, sweetgum, tulip tree, willows, black gum, 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 watered deeply and regularly (if needed) and mulched.
  • Both balled-and-burlapped (B&B) and container-grown trees can be planted any time the soil isn’t frozen. Summer planting, when trees are in full leaf, can be stressful and should be avoided if possible.
  • Be sure to keep all newly planted trees and shrubs well-watered throughout the two years, even in the winter, if needed. But do not water when the ground is frozen.

The Planting Hole

  • The planting hole for a tree or shrub should be no deeper than the depth of the rootball and twice as wide. The sides of the planting hole should slope out-wards. 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 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.

Fertilizing

  • Don’t fertilize newly planted trees and shrubs.
  • This seems contrary to common sense but 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. This is especially true for trees and shrubs that benefit from the fertilization of adjacent turfgrass.

The Planting Process

Bare Root Plants

  • Inspect roots and remove any dead, diseased, broken, or twisted roots. Soak the root system in water for 1-2 hours prior to planting.
  • 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 loose 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.
  • Fill in the soil around the roots and firm the soil to eliminate air pockets. There may be a visible soil line mark on the lower trunk or stem. The soil should be right at that soil line mark.

Balled and Burlapped/Wire Baskets

  • Carefully lower the root ball into the planting hole (refer to "the planting hole" above). 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 halfway 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 make four, equally-spaced, one-inch-deep cuts the length of the root ball.
  • New roots will rapidly grow from the cut ends of the roots.
  • Dig the planting hole deep enough to accommodate the plant with the top of the root ball level with ground level (refer to "the planting hole" above).
  • Fill in soil around the root ball and firm the soil to eliminate air pockets and water it in.

Transplanting

  • 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

  • Root pruning is the process of cutting roots completely around the plant which encourages new roots to grow at the point of the cuts and makes digging and moving the plant much easier.
  • Start pruning roots in early fall at least six months to a year (but ideally two years, before transplanting a tree or shrub.
  • 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 field marking paint, 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.
  • The plant will be dug and moved in the third year.  

Moving and Replanting

  • Prepare the soil at the new location in advance, and move and replant as quickly as possible.
  • 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.
  • Follow the same planting and post planting procedures used for new woody ornamentals for transplanted plants.  

Staking and Guying Trees

  • You do not have to support a newly planted tree.
  • Research has shown that the natural movement of the trunk by the wind actually stimulates root growth and increases trunk caliper more quickly than with staked trees.
  • If the tree is unusually large or is planted in a windy area, staking or guying may be needed for the first year.
  • Staking involves the use of two, 5- to 6-foot wooden stakes driven into the ground near the base of the tree but not into the root ball. The tree is secured to the stakes with wires. The wires are covered with short lengths of hose or flexible tubing where they come in contact with the tree trunk. 
  • Guying uses three equally spaced wires anchored to the ground. The wires are loosely looped around the tree trunk right below the lowest branches. Cover the wire with short lengths of hose where they come in contact with the tree trunk. Allow some slack in the wires for some trunk movement.
  • All supports should be removed after one year. This is what happens if the wires and support are not removed.

Monitor Your New Plants

Check on your newly planted trees every week for the first season. Check the soil for adequate moisture and check the foliage and branches for problems. If you discover insects feeding on the tree, or other problems, contact us through Ask an Expert (please attach digital photos to your question).

Based on publication HG 24 Planting Tips for Trees, Author: Raymond Bosmans, University of Maryland Extension Specialist, Home and Garden Information Center (retired); Revised: Robert Stewart, University of Maryland Extension (retired)

Compiled Debra Ricigliano, Home and Garden Information Center
Rev. 2020

 

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