Best Practices: Planting Trees and Shrubs

Without question, October is THE time to plant woody ornamentals, and that makes Andrea Laine’s former post from 2017 a must-read for gardeners. If you want to enhance your landscape with trees and shrubs, do yourself and your plants a favor and plant now! Andrea shares her top 5 tips for success. Plus we’ve added some new resources below.


by Andrea Laine, EMGV

Late fall is a great time of year to plant trees and shrubs. The timing enables roots to grow into the surrounding soil before stress due to new foliage growth and high temperatures occurs.

Follow these five best practices to give your new trees and shrubs the best start possible.

(1) Test the soil. For best long-term results, test the soil in the area where you intend to plant and follow the advice in the soil report you receive from Agronomic Services.* Soil sample supplies may be picked up from the Cooperative Extension Office at 721 Foster Street in Durham. The master gardener on duty or extension office staff can help you understand how to complete the sample and paperwork.

(2) Purchase smaller plants. Smaller-sized plants adjust to transplanting better than larger ones. I also favor smaller trees and shrubs because they require smaller holes be dug, are less expensive, and I get a kick out of watching them grow.

This newly planted Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’ (foreground) was purchased in a 1 gallon container. Someday it will be 10 feet tall with a narrow upright growth habit. Much sooner, perhaps even this season, its red blooms will grace my landscape.  I mark my new plantings with an orange flag to help protect them from being trampled by non-gardeners.

(3) Dig a wide hole. Most new roots will grow horizontally from the side of the root ball. Give them plenty of room by digging a hole three times the width of the root ball with the sides of the hole sloping toward the bottom. The depth of the hole need only be as deep as the current root ball. Use the soil you dug to make the hole to fill in around the root ball. If your soil is compacted you may choose to add organic matter, such as compost, to aerate it. If so, keep it to a minimum (less than 20 percent) and be sure to mix the compost thoroughly with the existing garden soil. The idea is to improve, not replace, the existing soil.

(4) Loosen the roots. Containers confine plant roots to such a degree that the roots begin to grow in a circle. To help them find their way out of that pattern, make a few vertical cuts around the root ball and gently splay the roots away from the center. I am able to do this with my hands, but I tend to buy smaller plants. Don’t be afraid to use a knife if you need to cut through a larger root system.

(5) Water consistently. Getting a new tree or shrub into the ground does not signal the end of the job! New plantings require more frequent watering than established trees and shrubs. Don’t sabotage your garden’s success by neglecting this important point. For one to two weeks after planting, water daily. For three to 12 weeks after planting, water every two to three days. Thereafter, water weekly until established. Give your plantings extra tender-loving care for one to two years after getting them in the ground. During periods of drought, newer plantings are the ones I make sure to hand water.

A newly planted Fothergilla ‘Mount Airy’ which is suspected to be a cross between Fothergilla ‘Gardenii’ and Fothergilla ‘Major.’ It will mature to 5 feet and was in a one-quart container when purchased. It was also growing a bit sideways so I decided to add a loose stake to encourage more upright growth.

After you have completed all five steps, be patient. It may not seem like your plants are doing much, but they are. During the first year, the roots will be far more active than the parts of the plant that are visible above ground. If you’ve followed the above advice and given them great soil in which to live plus consistent watering for the first two years, they will be grateful and will reward you by growing strong and healthy for years to come.



Resources and Additional Information

For information on tree planting techniques, see Missouri Extension’s factsheet

North Carolina State University has a great website and full video series on tree selection, planting, and care. Click on the video below to view the introduction to the series by Dr. Barb Fair.


For help with planting shrubs the right way, see Clemson University’s factsheet 

Planting Shrubs Correctly

Interested in learning more about planting trees and teaching others how to plant and protect trees in Durham County, NC? Keep Durham Beautiful offers a program in conjunction with Durham County Extension office on how to become a local “tree keeper” volunteer

Article Short Link