Spring means that the garden centers are packed with people,
car trunks are packed with plants. Everybody has dirt on their
knees, dirt under their nails, and are excited about
To make certain that this excitement yields positive results,
discuss the basics of spring planting.
Installing new plants and having them grow successfully is not
difficult, nor is it as complicated as some would have you
Is it as easy as just digging a hole and setting the plant in?
Yes, it certainly can be. I won't get into bed preparation, as
have covered that in previous articles that are still available.
Let's start with B&B plants. B&B is short for balled in
Closely examine the ball on the plant that you have purchased.
Did the diggers wrap twine around the ball to hold the plant
secure? If they did, you should at least cut the twine and lay
in the bottom of the hole, or remove it completely. Pay close
attention around the stem of the plant where it emerges from
root ball, as diggers often wrap the twine around the stem
times as they tie the ball. This is extremely important
the string is nylon, it will not rot and will girdle and kill
plant two or three years from now.
When B&B plants are stored in the nursery for extended periods
of time it becomes necessary to re-burlap them if the bottom
starts to rot before the plants are sold. If the plant that
has been re-burlaped it is possible that there could be nylon
stings between the two layers of burlap, check the stem
As long as the nylon string is removed from around the stem of
the plant, it is actually harmless around the rest of the ball,
you do not have to remove it.
Is the root ball wrapped in genuine burlap, or imitation burlap
made of a non-biodegradable plastic material. Genuine burlap
will rot quickly underground and does not have to be disturbed
before planting. If you're not sure or suspect a poly type
you don't have to remove it completely, but should loosen it
around the stem of the plant and cut some vertical slices
the circumference of the ball.
Now here's the critical part. What kind of soil are you
in? If your soil is heavy clay, I highly suggest that your
planting bed at least 8" with good rich topsoil. If you can't
that for some reason, install the plant so that at least 2" or
of the root ball is above the existing grade and mound the soil
over the root ball. Keep in mind that plants installed this
could dry out over the summer, but planting them flush with the
ground in heavy clay can mean that the roots will be too wet at
other times of the year.
The "experts" suggest that when planting in clay soil you dig
the hole wider and deeper than the root ball and fill around
under the plant with loose organic material. That sounds like
really great idea doesn't it? Some of these experts also
recommend that you dig the hole extra deep and put a few inches
of gravel in the bottom for drainage. Where do you suppose
they think this water is going to "drain" to?
Keep in mind that most B&B plants are grown in well drained
soil. That means that the soil in the root ball is porous and
water can easily pass through. Now imagine if you will, a root
ball about 15" in diameter, setting in a hole 30" diameter.
around and under that root ball is loose organic matter.
of that root ball is porous soil. Now along comes Mother
with a torrential downpour. There is water everywhere, and it
not going to soak into that hard packed clay soil, so it is
flowing across the top of the ground searching for the lowest
point. When it reaches our newly planted tree surrounded by
loose organic matter, it is going to seep in until the planting
is completely full of water. (Remember my article on getting
rid of standing water and the French drain system?)
By using this planting technique we have actually created a
French drain around our poor little plant that can not tolerate
roots being without oxygen for long periods of time. Because
the bottom of this hole is clay, even though we've added gravel
for drainage, there is nowhere for the water to go, and this
is going to suffer and likely die.
If you can not raise the planting bed with topsoil, and are
in clay soil, I recommend that you install the root ball at
above grade and backfill around the ball with the soil that you
removed when you dug the hole. Backfilling with the clay soil
that you removed is actually like building a dam to keep excess
water from permeating the root ball of your newly planted
The plant is not going to thrive in this poor soil, but at
least it will
have a chance to survive.
No matter what kind of soil you have, be careful not to install
your plants too deep. They should never be planted any deeper
than they were grown in the nursery. Planting too deep is a
common problem, and thousands of plants are killed each year
by gardeners who just don't understand how critical planting
Staking newly planted trees is always a good idea. If your
new tree constantly rocks back and forth when the wind blows
it will have a very difficult time establishing new roots into
existing soil. Stabilize the tree with a stake. You can use a
wooden stake, a fence post, or for small trees I often use 1/2"
electro magnetic tubing, (conduit), available at any hardware
store. You can secure the tree to the stake with a single wrap
duct tape. In about six months or a year the sun will dry the
on the duct tape and it will fall off. Check the tape to make
that it has fallen off. You don't want to girdle the tree with
Container grown plants are much easier. Follow the rules for
depth of planting as described earlier. Before gently removing
the plant from the container check the drain holes in the
of the container for roots that might be growing out the
If so cut them off so they will not make it difficult to get
out of the container. The easiest way to remove the plant from
the container is to place your hand over the top of the
and turn it completely upside down and give it a gentle shake.
The plant should slide right into your hand.
Examine the root mass as you hold it in your hand. Sometimes
when plants have been growing in a container for a long time
roots start to grow in a circular pattern around the root
This is not good, and you should disturb these roots before
planting so you can break this circular pattern. You can take
knife and actually make about three vertical slices from the
of the root mass to the bottom. This will stimulate new roots
that will grow outward into the soil of your garden. Or you
can just take your fingers and loosen the roots that are
the root mass and force them outward before you plant them.
What about fertilizer, bone meal, peat moss, and all those
additives they are going to try and sell you at the garden
Raise your planting beds with good rich topsoil and forget
the additives. Be very careful with fertilizers, they can do
harm than good. I landscaped my house 12 years ago and I
haven't got around to fertilizing the plants yet, and have no
intention of doing so. They look great.
As far as bone meal and all those other soil additives are
concerned, don't get too caught up in all that stuff. The only
thing that I know for sure is that they will make your wallet
thinner, but I don't think you'll see a difference in your
Did I mention planting in good rich topsoil?
About The Author
If you have questions for Mike McGroarty visit his website,
http://www.freeplants.com and post them on the message board
where you can learn lots of gardening tips and communicate with
other gardeners. While at his website you can learn how to
start your own profitable backyard nursery. If you would like
a copy of Mike's booklet, "The Secret of Growing Landscape
Plants from Scratch", send .00 to: Garden Secrets, P.O. Box
338, Perry, Ohio 44081
Back to the Top