Planting and Establishing Shrubs and Trees

Learn proper planting procedures and staking techniques to ensure that your shrubs and trees thrive.

person planting a shrub

Careful planning and soil preparation is necessary for freshly planted trees and shrubs to remain a healthy part of your yard.

Photo by Fotolia/Roman Milert

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Home Gardener’s Trees and Shrubs (Fox Chapel Publishing, 2016) by David Squire is an essential guide to selecting, planting and maintaining trees and shrubs in your outdoor space. Squire’s guide includes a comprehensive plant directory to help you choose the best species for your area, as well as advice on how to properly prune and avoid disease and pests.

How important is careful planting?

It is essential to plant a shrub or tree with great care and part of this is to ensure that the soil has been well prepared. Ideally, this involves digging it several months earlier, breaking up the subsoil (especially if it is impervious to water), adding well-decomposed garden compost or manure and removing perennial weeds. Shrubs and trees become permanent parts of gardens and therefore deserve careful planting. Securely staking trees is also essential.

Perennial Weeds

Annual weeds such as Chickweed and Groundsel can be easily removed, but perennial types are more difficult. If left, stems and leaves choke plants and deprive them of water and food. Dangerous weeds include:

Bindweed: twining stems and deep roots.

Celandine: yellow flowers in spring, with spreading roots.

Couch Grass: deep, spreading roots.

Ground Elder: pernicious roots.

Horsetail: upright, brush-like stems. 

Best Side Forward

Most shrubs and trees have a side that is more attractive than any other. When planting, check that it is facing towards the front of the border.

Common Problems After Planting

Even when soil has been well prepared, perennial weeds removed and planting is a success, there can be problems in the early life of a newly planted shrub or tree.

• Dry weather for several weeks prevents the development of new roots. Thoroughly water the soil and apply a thick mulch.

• Rabbits can be a problem in rural areas; they gnaw at bark on the trunk and cause severe damage. As a preventative measure, wrap a plastic tree-guard around the trunk – they are inexpensive and quickly fitted.

• Wind dries out leaves and gusting wind rocks trunks of trees, loosening the roots. To prevent these problems, see right.

• Snow soon deforms shrubs and trees; gently brush it off.

• Double leading shoots appear on some conifers. Use sharp pruning shears to remove one of them at the earliest opportunity.

Planting a Container-Grown Shrub

Look to local experts to determine when is the best time to plant. Ideally, the shrub should have roots that fill – but not excessively – the container and hold the compost firm. Always ensure that the rootball is moist; the day before planting, stand the shrub (still in its container) on a firm surface and thoroughly water. Allow excess water to drain. Additionally, water the planting area.

1. Use a garden spade to take out a hole large enough to accommodate the rootball. The hole should be about three times the diameter of the rootball. Form and firm a slight mound in the base of the hole.

2. Remove the container and place the rootball on the mound. If the rootball is root bound, with roots circling the container, use a small knife to cut the external circling roots in three or four lines from top to bottom. This will ensure that the roots will grow outward rather than continuing to circle.

3. Firm soil in layers around the rootball. Use the heel of your shoe to firm the soil. Rake the surface level to remove footprints, then water.

Planting a Bare-Rooted Tree

Plant a bare-rooted deciduous tree during its dormant period, usually from late winter to early spring. Check that the roots are not damaged; if necessary, use sharp pruning shears to cut back broken and torn parts, as well as those that are thin or excessively long. Then, place the roots in a bucket of clean water for about 24 hours, so that they are thoroughly moist. If the tree was grafted, check that the union is firm and sound.

1. Dig a hole large enough to accommodate the roots. Form and firm a mound; the old soil mark on the stem should be slightly below the level of the surrounding soil.

2. Pound a strong stake into the hole, so that its top is just below the lowest branch. Carefully draw friable soil over and between the roots; firm it in layers.

3. Carefully fit a tree-tie 1⁄2–3⁄4 in(12–18 mm) below the top of the stake. Ensure that the trunk is held secure, but not constricted. Rake the soil level and gently water the entire area.

Staking and Supporting

Trees often need staking, especially when young and before their roots are established and able to give support. There are three main types of tree stake – vertical, oblique and H-shaped. Vertical stakes need to be put in place while the tree is being planted; if done when planting is complete, roots may be damaged. Oblique and H-shaped supports are put in place when planting is complete.

Vertical Stakes

These are positioned on the windward side of the trunk. Fit a tree-tie 1⁄2–3⁄4 in (12–18 mm) below the top of the stake and slightly below the lowest branch. For taller trees, fit another tree-tie lower down.

Oblique Stakes

The top of an oblique stake should face into the prevailing wind, with the top of the stake crossing the trunk about 4 in (10 cm) below the lowest branch. Use a strong but adjustable tie.

H-Shaped Stakes

These are formed of two stout stakes pounded into soil on either side of a trunk; secure a strong, horizontal support between them and about 3 in (7.5 cm) below the lowest branch. Secure the trunk to the horizontal support.

Stake and tree-tie check

Regularly check that the supporting post is secure in the ground and is not rubbing against part of the tree. Additionally, throughout the year inspect each tree-tie to ensure that it is holding the trunk firmly but without constricting it. Most tree-ties specifically made for this purpose can be easily adjusted.

Mulching

Mulches formed of well-decomposed garden compost or farmyard manure reduce moisture loss from the soil. They also add plant foods and reduce soil erosion during heavy rainstorms. Furthermore, a mulch both keeps the soil warm during winter and cool in summer, which encourages the presence of beneficial soil organisms. Mulching materials also include bark chippings which, initially and unless moist, are easily scattered by birds and wind. Peat was earlier recommended for forming a mulch, but its removal from peat-beds destroys the habitats of many insects, birds and plants. Peat is also used in some composts, but in limited amounts.

Wind Protection

Until established, strong wind can push over trees and dry the foliage of shrubs. If the wind is persistent, small shrubs can be protected by the construction of a small, canvas screen secured by stakes on the windward side.


Reprinted with permission from Home Gardener's Trees and Shrubs by David Squire and published by Fox Chapel Publishing, 2016.