I know it's February and you would rather see pretty, inspiring photos of flowers and ornamental trees than a how-to-plant-a-tree post filled with boring brown, but spring is not far off and soon we'll be out there planting. There is a wrong way and a right way to plant, and when you do it right, you'll have many years of beauty like I have had with this Shasta Doublefile Viburnum pictured above.
Sadly, there's always that one tree or shrub (woodies) that slowly looses it's vigor over a period of time. Leaves become more sparse every spring, unfurling to half their size. One might think fertilizer must be the answer, so we feed it and hope that we'll see some improvement. Sometimes that helps, but when it doesn't, we wonder if we should wait one more year, or just declare defeat and plant something new. My guess it that the tree/shrub is slowly strangling itself.
Here is the root ball from a Japanese Maple I dug up last year. It had been planted about three years ago, thrived the first year, showed signs of struggle the second year, then hardly leafed out the third. Look at that thick root and how its wrapping around the root ball - it looks like the hand of death! It most likely began to do this when it was growing in it's pot in the nursery. Actually, it looks like the roots haven't stretched out at all from the original pot shape! That's not good!
Even the smaller white roots are growing circular rather than stretching out to gather water and nutrients and to help stabilize the tree as it matures. Unfortunately, this tree didn't have much of a chance to flourish.
The Right Way to Plant a Tree
1. Dig your hole the same depth as the root ball, but twice as wide. Most roots of trees and shrubs are shallow, within the top 12 inches. By digging the hole wider and loosening the soil, you are helping the roots by creating channels for air and water. And what about amending the soil? It depends on the existing soil. It's best to plant woodies in the native soil that already there. However, if your soil is extremely rocky or heavy clay, amend the soil with compost - I like to use a product called 'Nature's Blend' made with alfalfa, humates,and compost.
2. Before placing the root ball in the hole, I add water that has been mixed with a root stimulator so that it's available to the roots immediately. THIS IS SO IMPORTANT and the most neglected step. Root stimulator is NOT a fertilizer, it is actually a plant hormone that gets those feeder roots growing quickly. I like Fertilome's Root Stimulator - it's inexpensive, and I need only 3 tablespoons/gallon of water. Buy a big bottle because you'll need it all season.
This is what most root balls look like when removed from the nursery pot. And this is where things can go wrong if planted just as is, without doing anything to those roots.
3. Don't be afraid! Really! Don't be afraid to loosen the roots. I use a small pruning saw to score them.
Make several cuts with the saw, then loosen the roots with your fingers.
Now it's ready!
4. Place the root ball in the hole; water again with the root stimulator solution. Back fill with soil and tamp it down to remove air pockets. The other key step when planting a tree is to plant the root flare (where the root gets wider at the base) above ground. Water regularly through the first growing season - up until the ground freezes. The first 2-3 weeks after planting, water every other day, then back off to at least once a week, possibly more frequent when temps are over 90 degrees. I use the root stimulator solution every two weeks the first year. Mulch the roots of the tree/shrub, keeping the mulch away from the trunk - think bagel, not volcano.
Enjoy many years of beauty knowing you gave it a good start.
- Tracy Hankwitz
Horticulturist & BGC Store Manager
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