Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: How to Plant a Plant to Ensure It Will Survive

By Ron Sullivan
Friday June 30, 2006

You buy a tree or shrub and dig a hole and put the plant into it and fill it up and that’s pretty much it, right? Well, not exactly. It’s usually not a technical challenge, but there are right ways and wrong ways to plant a plant.  

Our instinct when we plant a tree or shrub is to tuck it in lovingly, after digging a nice deep hole and filling it partway with nice rich loam. That doesn’t work in the heavy clay most of us have as base soil. 

It’s disastrous for rhodies and azaleas, because they have a strong tendency to treat the nice rich soil and the nice deep hole as a container – in fact, it is effectively a clay pot—and grow their roots in a circle inside its confines.  

Besides, they hate having their crowns buried. The crown of a woody plant is (another counterintuitive thing here) at its base, between root and stem tissue, just about at soil level.  

Native live oaks also die slowly but inevitably when their crowns are buried by mulch, other plants, or anything else that holds water against them, including surface soil and leaf litter that’s sliding downhill. 

They’re susceptible to fungi that thrive in warm wet soil too, which is why they shouldn’t get water in summer—and neither should anything planted under them! If you have one, treat it as the treasure it is: plant a native understory; there are lots of droughty shade plants to play with. 

This problem is so common that when I was a pro, I could confidently stick a spade under a sick azalea, pop it flying out of the ground, and catch it in one hand to show the cramped, strangled rootball.  

So. When you plant, dig a wide, fairly shallow hole. Rough out the edges with the shovel blade; you don’t want smooth walls. Pile a little hump of dirt in the middle.  

Gently untangle the plant’s roots, or score the rootball vertically a couple of times along its edges. Put the plant on top of the hump, roots spread as much as you can, and backfill the hole with the same soil you took out of it. 

The crown should end up several inches above soil level, because it’s going to settle and sink a bit. Press the soil gently but firmly into place with your feet. 

Mulch the roots if you want to, but keep the mulch away from the trunk(s). If you make a watering “well” around it, be extra sure the trunk is above it—and remember to get rid of the raised circle after a year or so! The feeder roots should be far past its edges by then.  

Mulching with seasoned compost is a good way to fertilize later on. You don’t need to dig it in and disturb those delicate new roots, either. Spread it and let the earthworms do the work. 

If you have a wobbly tree after the planting procedure, use stakes to stabilize it. More about those next week.