Test soil drainage before planting. Dig a test hole as deep as your planting hole and fill with water. If water drains at a rate of less than one inch per hour, consider installing drainage to carry water away from the planting hole base, or moving or raising the planting site (berm construction).
Also consider using more water-tolerant species. For trees, try red maple, sycamore, bald cypress, willow oak, or river birch. For shrubs, try inkberry, redtwig dogwood and buttonbush. Avoid dogwoods, azaleas, boxwoods, Japanese hollies, and other plants that don’t like “wet feet” where drainage is poor.
Examine soil for compaction before planting. If soils are compacted, consider replacement with a good loam soil, or incorporation of several inches of an organic material such as composted yard waste to a depth of at least 8 inches over the entire planting area. Do not incorporate small quantities of sand - compaction will increase and drainage decrease.
In well-drained soil, dig holes as deep as the root ball. In poorly-drained heavy clay soil, dig holes one to two inches shallower than the root ball. Cover the exposed root ball top with mulch.
Don’t dig holes deeper than root balls or put loose soil beneath roots because loose soil will compact over time, leaving trees and shrubs planted too deep. Widen holes near the soil surface where most root growth occurs. Score walls of machine-dug (auger, backhoe) holes to prevent glazing.
Backfill holes with existing unamended soil. Do not incorporate organic matter such as peatmoss into backfill for individual planting holes. Differences in soil pore sizes will be created causing problems with water movement and root growth between the root ball, planting hole, and surrounding soil.
Backfill half the soil, then water thoroughly to settle out air pockets. Finish backfilling, then water again. Cover any exposed root ball tops with mulch.
Incorporate slow-release granular fertilizers into backfill soil to provide nitrogen, or if a soil test indicates a need for phosphorus or potassium. Avoid using fast-release agronomic fertilizers that can dehydrate tree roots. Use no more than 1# actual nitrogen per 1,000 ft. of planting hole surface. (Example - if using 18-6-12 with a 5' diameter hole, incorporate 0.3 oz. per planting hole.)
Wire baskets used to protect root balls degrade very slowly underground. Remove the top 8-12 inches of wire to keep equipment from getting caught in wire loops, and surface roots from girdling.
Remove all rope, whether jute or nylon, from trunks. Again, degradation is slow or nonexistent, and ropes can girdle trunks and roots.
Remove plastic containers from container-grown trees and shrubs. For plants in fiber pots, break away the top or remove the pot entirely. Many fiber pots are coated to extend their shelf life, but this slows degradation below ground and retards root extension.
If roots are circling around the root ball exterior, cut through the roots in a few places. Cutting helps prevent circling roots from eventually girdling the trunk. Select trees grown in containers with vertical ribs or a copper treatment on the interior container wall. These container modifications and treatments minimize circling root formation.
Good follow-up watering helps promote root growth. Drip irrigation systems and water reservoir devices can facilitate watering.
Mulch, but don’t over mulch newly planted trees and shrubs. Two to three inches of mulch is best - less if a fine material, more if coarse. Use either organic mulches (shredded or chunk pine bark, pine straw, composts) or inorganic mulches (volcanic and river rocks).
Keep mulch from touching tree trunks and shrub stems. This prevents disease and rodent problems if using organic mulches, and bark abrasion if using inorganic mulches.
Don’t use black plastic beneath mulch around trees and shrubs because it blocks air and water exchange. For added weed control, use landscape fabrics that resist weed root penetration. Apply only one to two inches of mulch atop fabrics to prevent weeds from growing in the mulch.
Only stake trees with large crowns, or those situated on windy sites or where people may push them over. Stake for a maximum of one year. Allow trees a slight amount of flex rather than holding them rigidly in place. Use guying or attaching material that won’t damage the bark. To prevent trunk girdling, remove all guying material after one year.
Most trees should not have their trunks wrapped. Wrapping often increases insect, disease, and water damage to trunks. Thin-barked trees planted in spring or summer into hot or paved areas may benefit from wrapping if a white wrap is used. To avoid trunk girdling, do not attach wraps with wire, nylon rope, plastic ties, or electrical tape. If wraps must be used, remove within one year.
For protection against animal or equipment damage, install guards to protect the trunk. Be sure the guards are loose-fitting and permit air circulation.
Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, re-print, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.
Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Edwin J. Jones, Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; Jewel E. Hairston, Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State, Petersburg.
May 1, 2009