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Planting and Care Guide

April 9, 2021

Planting

Trees and shrubs

There are many sizes of trees/shrubs and root balls. There are also different types of containers: plastic pots, ball n burlap, and metal cages. No matter the size or container the same planting guidelines apply. 

1. Mark Utilities. Be sure to call 1-800-DIG-RITE to properly mark utilities BEFORE digging.

2. Dig the hole. Dig the hole the same depth as the container and a few inches wider.  

3. Place the plant. The following are tips on placing the plant in the hole based on the type of container the plant has.

  • Plastic pot: Loosen the soil and root ball in the pot by applying pressure to the sides of the pot to make it easier to remove the plant. It is safer and more efficient to hit the sides of the pot (rubber mallet, hammer, hand, etc.) to loosen the root ball. Next, carefully lay the plant on its side and pull at the base of the trunk to pull away from the pot. Do not pull the plant by the top of the trunk or branches as this will damage or even break the limbs. 
  • Ball n burlap: Place the entire root ball in the hole. Do not remove the burlap (yet), this may cause damage to the roots and cause the root ball to fall apart. This can make it difficult to align the plant during planting. 
  • Wire cage: Place the plant with the cage into the hole. Do NOT remove or cut the cage away, this can cause serious damage to the roots. The cage will eventually rust away and will not harm the plant. 

4. Set the root ball.  Be sure the base (area where the trunk meets the soil) of the plant will sit 1-2 inches higher than the ground’s surface. This will ensure the plant is not buried too deep, which can cause suffocation, drown the root ball, and create a pathway for insects into the bark. 

Note: Plastic Pots Only. “Tease” (loosen) the roots of the root ball before back filling. This will help the roots to spread out and grow into the ground quicker.

This is a great time to look for potential girdling roots. These are roots that have circled inside the pot. Pull those roots and prune away; if left, these roots will continue to grow around the tree, eventually suffocating itself. Pruning a root or two from the outside of the root ball will not harm the plant. 

5. Backfill.  Back fill the base of the hole about 1/3 high. Adjust the plant as needed to ensure it is straight (continue to check the alignment as you finish backfilling). Use loose soil (preferably not containing rocks or other debris) and periodically tamp around the root ball to help remove air pockets and stabilize the tree. We suggest using the end of a shovel, heavy rod, pole, etc. You may also use a water hose to begin settling the soil as you go by wetting the soil. 

  • Plastic Pot: Double check that the base of the trunk is higher than the ground surface.
  • Ball n burlap: Cut away the top portion of the burlap and remove all strings/rope. If the burlap is left it will shed water away from the roots, causing desiccation. The remaining burlap below will decompose and not damage the tree. 
  • Wire cage: At this point the cage should be completely covered by soil. However, there may be ‘rabbit ears’ sticking out the top. These are hooks built into the cage to help transfer the tree within the nursery and deliveries. Using pliers, bend the ears to face down into the hole. This will help prevent trip hazards, weed eaters from grabbing it and mowers hitting the metal.  Cut away the top portion of the burlap and remove all strings/rope. If the burlap is left it will shed water away from the roots, causing desiccation. The remaining burlap below will decompose and not damage the tree.

7. Finish backfilling. Bring the soil up to 2 inches below the trunk base. DO NOT BURY the base of the trunk. This will cause many problems, including killing the tree. 

8. Extra soil. If there is extra soil, you may create a ‘moat’ around the plant. Build a ring around the entire outer circumference of the hole. Build it just high enough (2-3 inches) to capture water when it rains or when you hand water. Remember, you have planted the tree higher than the ground around it, so there is no threat of drowning. If the tree/shrub is planted in a swampy or wet area, do NOT build a moat. 

9.  Water. Finish by watering in the tree or shrub. Be sure to soak the area well, allowing the water to percolate into the entire hole. For trees, set a water hose at the base of the tree and let it run at a trickle for at least 30 minutes. Watering will help further settle air pockets (which kill roots) and help the roots to begin growing. 

  • Water every day for a full week, then start weaning back to every other day and eventually only water as needed.
  • If we do not receive much snow or rainfall in the winter months, watering during the winter is recommended. 

Staking

Staking usually occurs when installing new trees and larger shrubs. Properly staking plants will help insure they grow straight, do not shift, and can withstand storms and heavy winds. Trees and shrubs can be costly and providing the necessary support will help ensure their development and survival. 

Materials Needed: 2-3 metal t-posts, 12–14-gauge wire (2-3 24-inch pieces), 2-3 pieces of 6 inch cut rubber garden hose, pliers, wire cutters, screwdriver, post driver (or small sledge hammer). 

How to stake a tree:

  1. Remove the nursery stake (may be a piece of bamboo or wooden stick).
  2. Smaller trees may only require 2 posts, but others need 3. Place the posts evenly opposite of one another around the tree.
  3. Drive the posts in a 45-degree angle with the top of the post leaning away from the trunk. Drive the posts about 12 inches into the soil at the same circumference as the outer edge of the hole. Have the notches of the post facing away from the tree. 
  4. Feed each piece of wire through one piece of rubber hose and center it on the strand.
  5. Bend the rubber piece around the trunk roughly halfway up the tree. Be sure to have the rubber centered on the trunk and not rubbing against a branch. 
  6. Pull both ends of the wire around the post, twist the wires together and secure under one of the notches. Continue the process on the other wires; keep the wires about 6-8 inches apart and at different levels on the truck. 
  7. Use the screwdriver and stab between the wire strands in the center between the tree trunk and the post. Begin turning the screwdriver, twisting the wire on itself.
  8. Do not fully tighten until the rest of the wires have been twisted in place.
  9. Go around and finish twisting the wires with the screwdriver, twist until the wire is just taut. Be careful not to tighten too much. It is IMPORTANT to constantly check the alignment of the tree. You may have to adjust the wires to achieve the proper alignment. Be sure to keep the tree as straight as possible. When finished, cut the excess wire flush at the post. 
  10. Check once again the tree is straight and there is even pressure on all the wires. 
  11. Remove the stakes and wire after 12 months. 

Perennials

These are plants that come back every year (herbs, flowers, hardy succulents, ground covers, etc.).   

  1. Dig the hole. Dig the hole the same depth as the container and a few inches wider.  
  2. Place the plant. Be sure to loosen the soil in the pot before attempting to remove the plant. An easy and efficient way is to gently tap/hit or squeeze the sides of the container and then pull at the base of the plant. Try not to pull the plant by the branches since this can damage or even break the plant. 
  3. Tease the roots. Before placing the plant in the hole ‘tease’ or loosen the roots with your fingers. Sometimes the root ball is tightly packed, or root bound; use a sharp knife, hand pruners, etc. and slice (or gently cut) down the sides of the root mass on four sides. This will cut some roots, but that is healthy for the plant and will invigorate root growth. 
  4. Backfill. Backfill around the plant with good, rich, loose soil. Hand tamp around the plant to ensure complete coverage of the roots. Do NOT bury the plant; bring the soil just to the base of the plant. Any higher and the plant may rot, incur fungus, or insect damage. 
  5. Fertilize. Apply a recommended or all-purpose granular fertilizer around the base but NOT touching the plant. 
  6. Water. Gently water at the base of the plant, completely soaking the planted area. Try to keep water off the leaf tissue (every watering); this will help prevent leaf scorch, leaf drop, and fungus. 

Note: Shock. Some plants may experience shock from the transplant process. This is normal. Signs of shock include leaf curling, leaves dropping, wilting/drooping, or complete defoliation. If this occurs, be sure to keep plenty of water on the root zone (but not too much). It can take a plant (depending on the species and circumstances) a few weeks to recover. Do not give up quickly – keep an eye on it. Do NOT apply more fertilizer; wait about 2 months before feeding again. 

Annuals

These are plants that live for only one growing season, and do not return (marigolds, pansies, coleus, petunias, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, etc. are just a few examples of annuals). 

  1. Dig the hole. Dig the hole the same depth as the container and a few inches wider.  
  2. Place the plant. Be sure to loosen the soil in the pot/tray/pack before attempting to remove the plant. An easy and efficient way is to gently tap the sides of the container and then pull at the base of the plant. Try not to pull the plant by the branches as this can damage or even break the plant. Many times, the plants have a healthy and full root system that completely takes up the space in the container, making them difficult to simply pull out. If the plants are grown in plastic packs (ex. 4 or 6 cells or more) use sharp scissors or hand pruners to cut the plastic on one side and then remove the plant via handling the root system and not the top portion.

Note: Tomatoes like to be buried. Remove the first 2-4 levels of branches, starting at the bottom, and bury the plant half underground. Tomatoes are technically a vine and will develop a strong root system by developing roots off the trunk. 

  1. Tease the roots. Before placing the plant in the hole ‘tease’ or loosen the roots with your fingers. Sometimes the root ball is tightly packed, or root bound; use a sharp knife, hand pruners, etc. and slice (or gently cut) down the sides of the root mass on four sides. This will cut some roots, but that is healthy for the plant and will invigorate root growth. 
  2. Backfill. Backfill around the plant with good, rich, loose soil. Hand tamp around the plant to ensure complete coverage of the roots. Do NOT bury the plant; bring the soil just to the base of the plant. Any higher and the plant may rot, incur fungus, or insect damage. 
  3. Fertilize. Apply a recommended or all- purpose granular fertilizer around the base but NOT touching the plant. 
  4. Water. Gently water at the base of the plant, completely soaking the planted area. Try to keep water off the leaf tissue (every watering); this will help prevent leaf scorch, leaf drop, and fungus. 

Grasses

These are ornamental perennial grasses that come in a wide range of size, both vertically and horizontally (Pampas Grass, Maiden Grass, Blue Stem, etc.).

  1. Dig the hole. Dig the hole the same depth as the container and a few inches wider.  
  2. Place the plant. Be sure to loosen the soil in the pot before attempting to remove the plant. An easy and efficient way is to gently tap/hit the sides of the container and then pull at the base of the plant.  Grab the whole grass top and pull it from the pot. Many times, the plants have a healthy and full root system that completely takes up the space in the pot.  This makes it difficult to simply pull out. An easier method is to simply cut the side of the pot with sharp hand pruners or a knife. 
  3. Tease the roots. Before placing the plant in the hole ‘tease’ or loosen the roots with your fingers. Sometimes the root ball is tightly packed, or root bound; use a sharp knife, hand pruners, etc. and slice (or gently cut) down the sides of the root mass on four sides. This will cut some roots, but that is healthy for the plant and will invigorate root growth. 
  4. Backfill. Backfill around the plant with good, rich, loose soil. Hand tamp around the plant to ensure complete coverage of the roots. Do NOT bury the plant; bring the soil just to the base of the plant. Any higher and the plant may rot, incur fungus, or insect damage. 
  5. Fertilize. Apply a recommended or all- purpose granular fertilizer around the base but NOT touching the plant. 
  6. Water. Gently water at the base of the plant, completely soaking the planted area. Try to keep water off the leaf tissue (every watering); this will help prevent leaf scorch, leaf drop, and fungus. 

Watering

Your trees, shrubs or flowers have been carefully planted at the proper depth, location and placement for optimal growth and aesthetics. The plants’ roots will take a few weeks to expand out into the parent soil from the root ball. The following guidelines will help you and your plants for the next few months and beyond. They may be altered as needed based on natural rainfall, but only if that rain is substantial (substantial means rainfall equal to or greater than 1”).  

  1. Water new plants daily for the first 7-10 days
  2. Water every other day for the next 10 days
  3. Water as needed following the initial 17-20 days
  4. Hand watering is highly recommended at the base of the plant to cover the entire root zone. For trees/shrubs, we recommend drip bags. These bags hold 20 gallons of water and zip around the trunk to provide 6-8 hours of localized drip action. For smaller plants:
  • Hold water hose approximately 60 seconds per plant at a normal flow rate
  • Keep water off the leaves of the plants, as it can lead to leaf scorch, fungus, etc.
  • Excessive watering may lead to root rot
  • Test moisture with a finger 2-3” deep around the base of the plants
  • Allow soil to dry between waterings
  1. Water frequently during drought, high temperatures, and windy periods

Mulching

Mulch is right behind watering in order of importance. The root system is the ‘heart’ of your plant and needs protection. Below are some benefits of mulch:

  • Retain moisture. Mulch aids in retaining moisture for the sensitive roots. Proper uptake of water is essential, and water-loss can happen quickly due to high temperatures, quick drainage, lack of watering/improper watering or neglect.
  • Insulation. Mulch acts as an insulator from extreme temperatures. Excessive cold can damage or even kill a plant quickly. Same for high heat – especially if the plant is in full sun. 
  • Nutrients. Mulch consists of organic material such as ground wood, leaves, straw, hay, pine needles, etc. As time goes on, this material will decompose and add important nutrients to the soil for your plants. 
  • Erosion control. Most landscapes are void of ground coverings. Mulch will help prevent erosion scenarios and keep the soil close to your plant’s roots. Some landscape designs call for vining ground covering, but even with these plants it will take some time for them to grow and spread out over the landscape bed. Also, this ground cover does not aid in water retention – in fact, it is a competitor for the same elements (water/nutrients). Use mulch for new installations at least until the live ground cover has established itself.
  • Weed control. Placing a 2–3-inch layer of mulch will help stave off weed seeds from germinating and provide an easier environment for pulling or spraying weeds that fly in and grow. Mulch also makes it easy to apply pre-emergent products on the surface to help prevent any weed seeds from germinating. 
  • Aesthetics. Mulch comes in a variety of materials, sizes, and colors. Mulch is the ‘palette’ of the landscape and can help accentuate and compliment the plants, rocks, features, etc. 
  • Barrier. Mulch also acts as a physical barrier to protect against mowers and weed eaters. Mulched areas help create a physical barrier to stave off mowers and weed eaters. Many times, plants are girdled (bark removed from around the entire trunk), killing them in the first year. A good rule of thumb when planting ANY plant is to place a mulch area around that plant, whether it is located inside a bed or as a stand-alone in the lawn. 

How much mulch? Good rule of thumb is 2-3 inches in depth. Be sure the mulch is barely touching the trunk or base of the plant. DO NOT VOLCANO the mulch; this will kill the plant. For trees, create a ‘donut’ around the tree. Keep the depth at 2–3-inches. Taper the mulch down to the trunk but keep it heavier at the outer portions of the root zone. Mulch that lays against the trunk can suffocate the tree, create a pathway for insects, and rot the tree. 

It is recommended to top dress and add more mulch once a year. Mulch is organic and will break down over time. To ensure water retention and protection of the roots, replace the mulch that has decomposed. 

Fertilizing

Just like our bodies, plants need supplemental nutrients. Below are some benefits of feeding plants:

  • Promote vigorous growth
  • Help the plant survive or recover in times of stress
  • Promote stronger branches, flowers and roots
  • Fight against insects and pathogens (fungus)
  • Promote a healthy, full, and lustrous canopy

Types of Fertilizers

There are many types of fertilizer on the market. Deciding on which to use can be challenging. Knowing what kind of plants you want to feed will help the decision process. Most plants will perform well with an all-purpose fertilizer, such as a 12-12-12 or 20-20-20 analysis.

  1. Conventional Fertilizer. This is a type of fertilizer that is manufactured using natural resources. Nitrogen is derived from the air and mixed with hydrogen from natural gas. Phosphorus and Potassium are derived from minerals of the earth and undergo a chemical process to form them into a ready-to-use fertilizer. These are the most efficient types since not much product is needed to achieve the desired nutrient level. They are also inexpensive overall compared to other types of fertilizers.
  1. Organic Fertilizer. These are fertilizers that come from partially decomposed animal manure or plant material. They are a great natural way to feed plants. Sometimes these fertilizers are more expensive since they require more and are not as accessible to most customers. However, most customers may start a compost pile where home organic waste can be composted into a usable form. Compost consists of tree leaves, grass clippings, straw, wood chips, vegetable scraps, and fruit waste. 
  1. Liquid or Granular. Fertilizer will come in two forms, either liquid or granular. 
  • Liquid: This product will come in a premixed form where it can be used directly from the bottle, or as a powder that you mix with water and then apply. It may also be applied as a foliar feed where the solution is sprayed directly onto the plant’s leaves. Plants have the amazing ability to uptake nutrients via their leaves. The solution may be poured directly onto the ground around the base of the plant or root zone.  One major benefit in using a liquid fertilizer is that the plant uptakes the nutrients quickly. Caution: using a liquid product can burn plants quickly if the mixing or application instructions are not followed exactly.
  • Granular. This is the most used form of fertilizer. It will be broadcasted evenly around the base of the plant or root zone prior to watering. The nutrients are released into the soil every time it is watered. This lessens the chance of burning the plants. However, do not allow the fertilizer to make direct contact with the plant.

We like to use a 11-15-11 granular fertilizer. This fertilizer is not nitrogen heavy and provides an essential amount of phosphorus (aids in a strong root system) and potassium (regulates movement of water, nutrients, and carbohydrates). Because it is not heavy in nitrogen there is less chance of burning the plant; plus, it is designed to be applied multiple times throughout the growing season. With that said, there are fertilizers that are made specifically for certain classes of plants: Roses, Azalea/Rhododendron, Evergreens, Vegetables, Flowering, Acid-loving, etc. Each of these products will have guidelines on their packaging on how much to apply. 

Probiotics. For newly planted trees and shrubs we recommend a probiotic. This product will increase microbial action, allowing increased uptake of nutrients already in the soil. This will give the plant the best opportunity to establish itself without pushing growth too fast or burning. For established plants (older than one year), the probiotic should be applied twice a year; in fact, this treatment will reduce the amount of fertilizer needed in a given calendar year.       

How Much Fertilizer. Apply the fertilizer every 3-4 weeks to annuals and perennials for optimal performance. The amount to be applied depends on the size of the plant. Most of these plants will require about 1-2 tablespoons of granular fertilizer. Trees/shrubs of 1” in diameter or more would require about ¼ cup of granular fertilizer per treatment. Fertilize trees and shrubs in spring and fall. 

What is N-P-K?  These are the scientific symbols of the essential macronutrients contained in the fertilizer. N=Nitrogen, P=Phosphorus, and K=Potassium. For example, the fertilizer we use most often is 11-15-11. Translation- there is 11% Nitrogen, 15% Phosphorus, and 11% Potassium-K. Each has a specific role in the overall health of plants. One fun and easy way to remember this is “Up, Down and All Around” – Up = N, Down = P, and All Around = K. Nitrogen (N) aids in healthy growth for the upper portion of the plant, such as leaves, branches and flowers/fruit; phosphorous (P) aids in the lower portion, such as roots and vascular systems; and potassium (K) aids in movement of water and nutrients back forth in the plant. 

Here at our garden center, we carry high quality fertilizers including granular, liquid and probiotics. We work with customers on choosing the right product for your specific needs. Protecting your investment is our goal. 

Pruning

All plants will require some form of pruning throughout their life.

There are 2 main types of pruning for trees/shrubs: 

  1. Rejuvenating (mostly shrubs): typically done in the winter months when the plants are completely dormant. This type of pruning is utilized for promoting new and healthy growth as well as maintaining healthy shrub size and scale. 
  2. Structural (trees/shrubs): this type of pruning can be done anytime of the year. This is used to help remove any damaged /disease branches, spent flower heads, or rouge branches. Structural pruning is just that – helping the plants maintain their shape, desired structure, and healthy growth habit. Do not remove more than 1/3 of the wood at one time.

Ornamental trees: (20’ or less in height) typically are pruned once a year. This yearly pruning aides in structural integrity, shape, and prevention of winter/wind damage. 

Shrubs: Both deciduous and evergreen shrubs are pruned twice a year, typically mid-summer, and again mid-winter. Both times are important since this occurs after the plants have flushed out new growth. We prune cross-over/problem branches, saplings, and suckers. We also will remove diseased tissue to maintain its shape and healthy growth habit. If it is a flowering shrub, this pruning will help invigorate more flowers and remove ‘spent’ flowers which pull nutrients away from the plant. 

Flowers: Dead heading/pruning out dead flowers, removing dead/damaged leaves and stems. 

Grasses: These plants need only one pruning a year, usually done in the winter such as February. Cut the entire plant down to about 6-8 inches from the ground. This will make room for the new growth and allow for better air flow and less crowding. 

Benefits of Pruning: 

  • Air flow: Pruning allows for more air flow within and around the plants. Improved air circulation helps prevent fungus damage.
  •  Reduced crowding: Removing targeted new growth allows the plants to maintain their shape, structure, and proper growth direction. It is never healthy to have plants touching one another – unless you are creating a ‘hedge’ effect. 
  • Growth: Stimulate new growth to help fill in, thicken, and distribute plant’s weight more evenly. This allows the plant to put more energy into healthier and more desired branches rather than ‘rouge’ branches that shoot off in sporadic directions. 
  • Insects: Although beneficial, some insects are not desirable in proximity of high traffic areas for families.  Reducing and/or thinning plants will help deter insects from building nests unexpectedly (i.e., wasps, hornets, bees, etc.). 
  • Other pests:  The same goes for furry animals as insects: raising branches off the ground or thinning/pruning plants off buildings and structures deters animals from making dens, nests, and hideouts. Many times, these are areas where animals will dig under foundations, causing a host of problems. 
  • Light: All plants need varying amounts of sunlight to make food and stay healthy. Strategic pruning allows light to reach plants either internally, around the perimeter, or both. 
  • Disease: Pruning twice a year allows us to put eyes on the plants to catch early signs of disease that may be starting or has already infected and damaged the plant. We can remove these branches before they become weak and break. Also, along with good air flow and increased sunlight, disease will be reduced.
  • Weeds: This classification of plants creates many problems for landscapes. Some of the most common problems include crowding, spreading, visually detracting, competing for the same resources such as light, water and nutrients. 

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Want professional upkeep of your plants, edging, and yard? Visit the Custom Creations Landscape Preservation page to learn more.

Dave Ruzicka