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Planting A Tree Planting Principles Will Help Your New Tree Live A Long And Healthy Life

Whether it’s due to Mother Nature’s creative hand or our own desire for change, trees and shrubs are going to be planted, and this is the time to plant.

But, before you dig that hole and cover the root system with soil, there are a few planting principles that should be followed to ensure your plants live a long and healthy life:

The hole: You wouldn’t think there would be much to say about digging a hole. But this procedure, too, has guidelines. The hole should be twice as wide as the container and only as deep as the container. In other words, you don’t have to dig a hole to China, just be sure to make it wide. Because the shovel has a tendency to compact the soil against the sides of the hole, roughen the sides with a hand rake.

Drainage: Check the hole for drainage by filling the hole with water prior to planting. If the water remains in the hole for more than two hours, there may be a drainage problem. If this is the case, breaking the hardpan with an auger may help. Otherwise, the plants may have to be moved to higher ground, drain tiles may be in order or consider planting water-loving plants.

Recheck planting depth: With the plant still in its pot, place it into the hole. The soil line around the base of the plant’s trunk should be about 1-1/2 inches above the existing soil grade. Since the tree is still in its container, you can move it in and out of the hole and settle on which direction you wish it to face without hurting its roots.

Containerized and B&B; root systems: Here comes the debate.

1. Metal and plastic containers: Lay the plant on its side, if possible. Remove any roots that may be growing out the bottom of the container. Then rap the side of the container to loosen and remove the root system from the pot.

Using your fingers, try to fluff the roots by gently pulling them apart. If the roots won’t pull apart with a gentle fluff, then cut them.

Cutting or scoring the roots simply requires a sharp knife and confidence. Slice the root ball from top to bottom going one-third in from the outer edge. Again with your fingers, gently work the openings apart, fluffing as many roots as possible. If there are encircling roots that can be saved without cutting, simply unwrap them.

2. Papier-mache containers: Don’t plant in these containers. They are not peat pots and do not decompose quickly. In the meantime, young roots struggle to find an opening to the soil. Most of the time, they hit the sides of the pot and turn back into the root ball.

The result is a massive knotted root system that eventually strangles the plant.

3. B&B;, or balled and burlap: “To remove the burlap or not to remove the burlap.” That’s the first half of the question.

Most burlap has been treated so it won’t disintegrate for at least three years. Some burlap has also been treated with a root inhibitor, preventing roots from penetrating the burlap. Even loosening and folding the material into the hole can present problems. Young roots may find it difficult to penetrate all those folds. They turn back into the root ball, creating massive knots and encircling roots that eventually may kill the tree.

Steve Churchillo, tree specialist with the Boise Parks and Recreation (one of the nation’s leading urban tree programs), deals with planting very large street trees. Not only does he instruct his staff to pull the burlap back as far as possible, but to cut away all excess burlap. This also includes two-thirds of the wire basket.

The best advice for homeowners dealing with normal-size root balls is to remove all the burlap to ensure a healthy plant.

The second half of the question is whether to disturb the root system. Many times the root ball of B&B; stock is encased in clay. If the clay is ever allowed to dry, rewetting it is like trying to wet a bowling ball.

Prior to planting, soak the root ball in a container of water for a few hours. With a three-prong rake, gently begin removing at least a third of the outer edges of clay from the roots. By doing this, roots are exposed that will move from the root ball into the native soil.

Roots are not delicate but should be handled with care. If we have to cut or remove a few, it won’t kill the plant and will make it stronger in the long run. Coiled or kinked roots thicken with age. They encircle the plant and tie themselves up in knots. This can put a plant under extreme stress, leaving it susceptible to disease, insects and death. When working with roots, whether they’re containerized or B&B;, ALWAYS make sure they are WET. Roots allowed to dry out spell death or injury to the plant.

3. Boxed roses: Though the box says to plant the box, don’t. Again, we do not plant containers. Remove roses from boxes and papier-mache pots. Form a DAMPENED cone in the hole and spread the roots over the cone. Remove any dead or broken roots. For the gardener with not enough time, energy or money to bring in soil each fall to cover the rose bud union, bury the bud union at least 4 inches into the ground. I know this seems deep, but there are many alive, healthy roses in this area to prove this method works.

Planting all trees and shrubs: Spread the roots out. They shouldn’t touch the sides of the hole. If they do, make the hole larger or simply cut off the roots.

Back fill: Fill the hole with water first, then soil, creating a muddy solution. The mud will help eliminate air pockets that may surround the roots.

If the existing soil is rich with organic matter, you can amend the soil removed from the hole with organic materials such as bagged manure, peat moss, etc. However, if the soil is poor - sand, rocks or clay - use only the soil removed from the hole, no matter how horrid it may seem. Rich planting holes often encourage young roots to curl themselves into oblivion before they exit into the poor native soil. As usual, there are exceptions.

The native soil awaiting plants with small root systems - roses, azaleas, rhododendrons, blueberries etc., can and should be amended. All of these plants appreciate a rich soil. The acid-loving plants also benefit from a bit of peat moss, oak leaves and sulfur.

Planting trees and shrubs is a relatively easy task if proper planting techniques are followed. Yet how many of us have brought plants home from the nursery, set them on our driveways and let them sit until planting day? Of course that day is hot and sunny - who wants to work in the rain?

We begin by removing the container and laying the plant on the ground. The sun begins baking its little roots as we dig the hole. Once the hole is dug, we grab the plant and drop it into the hole. Whoops, not the right depth. Out it comes, back on the ground, only this time it has lost some soil around its feet. More drying, dying roots.

When the hole is just right, it’s time to plant. Oh, wait, that side of the tree looks terrible; turn it around. Without lifting it, we just grab its trunk and twist, Now we have drying, dying, twisted roots.

Finally, into the hole goes the nice rich, amended soil and a little water to top it off. Now we have drying, dying twisted roots that wouldn’t leave that nice rich soil we have created even if its roots were moist, healthy and straight. The tree goes into shock, withers and dies.

Boy, we sure bought a lemon of a tree, didn’t we?

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by Molly Quinn

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: GARDENING HELP Gardeners can go online to The Spokesman-Review’s Web site and find a wealth of information in “The Gardener’s Guide” on Virtually Northwest ( There are guides to local garden clubs, garden centers and mail-order businesses, an events calendar, gardener-to-gardener tips, regional planting guides and much more.

This sidebar appeared with the story: GARDENING HELP Gardeners can go online to The Spokesman-Review’s Web site and find a wealth of information in “The Gardener’s Guide” on Virtually Northwest ( There are guides to local garden clubs, garden centers and mail-order businesses, an events calendar, gardener-to-gardener tips, regional planting guides and much more.