Spring Tree and Shrub Planting

On the Heels of Arbor Day – May is a great time to plant trees and shrubs.  Once the site has been analyzed for adequate room and the purpose of the tree has been identified (shade, fruit, screening, color), it’s time to focus on getting the roots in the ground.

First Things First

First, dig a hole 3 times the width of the root mass, but no deeper.  Take off the burlap/wire basket/plastic pot and take a close look at the roots themselves.  Notice if they’re circling or softened.  If they are, the next action step is to “head ‘em off at the pass” as we used to hear in old western movies.

If they are circling or worse yet, a solid mass of roots exist in the outer parts of the root mass, you have 3 choices

-untangle them and place them in the space to the right or left,  

-use a pruning saw to cut them off,

-discard the tree and choose a new one. 

The last 2 options are rather drastic, but will prevent you from being disappointed with a struggling tree 5-10 years in the future.  Softened or spongy roots should simply be cut off with a by-pass pruning shears.  Taking the time to spread them out and cut off any rotten ones will pay big dividends down the road.

Place the Tree

Place the tree in the planting hole such that the uppermost lateral root is an inch above the grade.  This will prevent the tree from being planted too deeply, and allow for a little settling over time.  It may seem like that tree roots will dry out if they are a bit on the high side, but as the tree planting process continues, they will be covered with soil and mulch, keeping them moist and protected.

Backfill and Water

After fixing the root issues, the next order of business is to backfill around the roots with the same soil that you dug out of the hole.  Resist the temptation to mix the on-site soil with peat moss, compost, topsoil or any other amendment.  Doing so will encourage the roots to stay in the planting hole rather than growing outward into the landscape.  As you backfill, moisten the soil – add a few inches of backfill, then water lightly, then a few more inches of backfill, and water lightly again, etc. until the soil covers the roots. 

Too Mulch of a Good Thing 

Yes, mulching trees and shrubs is a good thing, and is especially important after planting, but too much can be harmful.  Ideal mulching goes like this – 2-3 inches of wood chips that start about 6 inches away from the trunk and extend about 4-5 feet outwards. 

Wood chips, pine straw, corn cobs, bark chunks and other organic sources of mulch are best for trees and shrubs.  Rock mulch is desired by some because it tends to blow away from the planting site to a lesser degree, but adds a lot of heat and high temperature stress that will cause new trees and shrubs to suffer.  As well, rock doesn’t break down and add humus and nutrients to the root system as wood chips will, preventing the new specimen from benefiting from natural nutrient cycling.

Seasonal Care

The most important care that can be provided for a new tree is to keep the roots moist, not soggy or dry.  Check for soil moisture with a screwdriver or other probe on a weekly basis.  Fertilizer applications and vitamins are not needed at planting time.


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