Now’s the time to plant trees and shrubs
Your hydrangeas didn’t make it this summer; your hollies are straggly; the front yard needs an additional shade tree. What to do?
Select and plant new trees and shrubs this fall, the best time to plant in metro Richmond. Cool weather provides an opportunity for plants to adjust before cold weather comes, and to establish deep roots before next year’s scorching summer.
Do a little research and pick out a tree or shrub that will do well in zone 7 and with your light/soil/water conditions.
At the garden center
You will find more success with smaller plants. Unless you need instant landscaping, do not pay for a large specimen. Trees and shrubs are sold containerized, balled and burlapped, or bare-rooted.
Bare-root: The most economical option, purchasing bare-root plants works best for some species, such as roses, fruit trees and ornamentals. Plant bare-rooted trees in the late fall, winter or early spring when they are dormant (i.e., no more than two to three inches of new growth).
Container: Because the entire root system is in the container, the plant goes through less transplant shock. However, container-grown plants could be rootbound (i.e., overgrown roots circling inside the container). This condition must be corrected at planting time to encourage healthy growth.
Balled and burlapped (B&B): Larger landscape plants come with soil in which they were grown. However, B&B material might have had some roots severed at harvesting. The best seasons to plant B&B are fall, winter and early spring. Watering is critical in successful transplanting of B&B material.
Do not pick up a plant by its trunk; lift it by the root ball or container. When you load the plant into your car, protect the roots, stem, and foliage during transport, and shield the plant tops from wind.
If you must keep it for a few days before planting, protect the roots from drying conditions or freezing temperatures. If the delay in planting is more than a few days, “heel in” B&B material by covering the roots with mulch. Make sure to keep plants watered.
Before you dig, call Miss Utility at 811. Find a location that can accommodate the tree or shrub at its mature size. Make sure the area has good drainage unless the plant can tolerate “wet feet.”
Place the roots of bare-root trees and shrubs in water before planting. On all material, trim any damaged or girdling roots. Tease the roots of a container plant to encourage unrestricted growth. Remove tags, wires and ropes from stems and trunk.
In your yard
The most important consideration is planting depth. Dig a hole three to five times the width of the root ball, but only the same depth, saving the soil you dig out.
Place the plant at the same depth as it was in the nursery or field; the root flare should not be covered. The top of the root ball should be level or slightly above level with the surface of the ground. It is better to err by planting too high than too low.
For heavy clay or compacted soil, the root ball may be one third above the soil surface. The root ball should rest on solid soil and not loose backfill.
For B&B trees, place the plant in the hole before removing the burlap covering. Then, pull the burlap down off the root ball and leave it in the bottom of the hole. Do not pull the burlap from under the plant.
If the root ball is enclosed in a wire basket, the basket can be left in place. Cut the wires off below the soil surface. Remove any synthetic burlap material or plastic liners.
When replacing the soil in the hole, do not add organic matter. Instead, use the original soil. Incorporate a slow-release fertilizer, preferably composed of 25 to 50 percent water-insoluble nitrogen (WIN), into the soil backfill at planting time. Add local topsoil if you need more soil to fill the hole.
When the hole is about three fourths refilled, straighten and level the tree, tamp the soil down carefully, and water heavily. You do not want air pockets in the soil. Then fill the hole with backfill to its original level.
Construct an earthen saucer about six inches high around the dripline of the plant to collect water and minimize runoff. Water again deeply.
To prevent water loss and protect the plant, add a three-inch layer of organic mulch on the surface around the plant. Do not mulch too deep or pile it next to the trunk.
Older practices such as wrapping the trunk of trees or severely pruning B&B trees at transplant time are no longer advised.
Stakes and wires should be avoided, used only for additional support for one growing season. Prune at planting time only to remove damaged branches or to improve the structure of the plant.
Critical to the success of transplanted trees and shrubs, especially container-grown plants, is watering well during the first year.
For more information on tree planting, see these two resources:
- “Planting Trees,” by Diane Relf, Publication 426-702, Virginia Cooperative Extension: https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/426/426-702/426-702.pdf
- “Tree and Shrub Planting Guidelines,” by Bonnie Lee Appleton and Susan French, Publication 430-295, Virginia Cooperative Extension: https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/430/430-295/430-295_pdf.pdf
Lela Martin is a Master Gardener with the Chesterfield County office of the Virginia Cooperative Extension.