Trees & Shrubs: How to Plant

Trees and shrubs are primarily sold either in containers or balled- and-burlapped. Container-grown plants have spent their entire lives in a pot, so the root system is entirely intact. These can be more expensive, but they are also lightweight and, therefore, easier to handle. Balled-and-burlapped plants have been grown in the ground then dug and wrapped in burlap prior to being sold. The rootball is sized so that the plant retains the majority of its root system. This option allows you to purchase much larger plant material but will require more labor and possibly equipment to maneuver.

B&B Planting Image

Container Planting Image

Soil Preparation

Tilling the soil is the best way to break it up but is not always feasible. Using a garden spade or shovel, break up the soil and turn it over to a depth of about eight- to ten-inches. Mix organic matter such as soil conditioner, cow manure or mushroom compost into our heavily compacted clay soil. This will add “tilth” which provides available oxygen in the soil to benefit the plant’s root system. For poor drainage or soil texture (especially in clay soils), amend the soil with backfill of 25-50% organic matter to help correct the drainage problems.


Dig a hole twice as wide as the pot or rootball and only as deep as the rootball. The extra width will give the roots room to grow. Scrape the sides of the hole if it is glazed or smooth. If the soil has poor drainage, dig a shallower hole and plant with the top of the rootball slightly above the surface of the soil.

Plant Preparation

Slightly disrupt the rootball of a container-grown plant by pulling the roots outward to encourage root growth and to prevent the roots from encircling the planting hole. Balled-and-burlapped plants do not need to be disturbed in this way, although you may score the outside of the rootball with a knife. Once the plant is set in the hole, cut and remove any twine from around the trunk and/or rootball. Pull back the top 1/3 of burlap from around the rootball. It is not necessary to completely remove it; however, if the burlap is left exposed, it can wick necessary water away from the plant’s roots.


Partially fill the hole with the soil mixture. Place the plant in the hole and use the remaining mixture to backfill around the plant. Firmly tamp the soil around the plant to make sure there are no air pockets.


Water thoroughly to settle the soil and add more soil if needed. Continue watering as often as it takes to keep the roots moist but not saturated. A regular watering schedule is critical during the first few weeks of planting. It is better to water deeply and

thoroughly several times a week (as needed) rather than a little bit each day. Deep watering will encourage deep rooting, which in turn will make the plant healthier and stronger.


Uniformly apply a two- to four-inch layer of mulch, pine straw, or bark to the soil surface. This will aid in moisture retention, weed control, and temperature regulation (keeping the soil cool in summer and insulating the soil in winter).