Now is prime time for planting trees and shrubs. Most bare-root or packaged plants should be planted now. Plants planted now have more time for the root system to become established before the onset of summer heat. However, many containerized plants can be planted any time of year if handled properly.
Preparing the Hole
Most soils in Ellis County are Blackland clay. A poorly drained clay soil is either too wet or too dry for all but the most durable trees and shrubs. Soil drainage, compaction, and building debris problems must be resolved before planting is done. The easiest way to help a young tree or shrub survive is to dig the planting hole much wider than is normally done. In fact, it is much better to dig an entire bed area for shrubs, rather than individual holes. When preparing individual holes, dig the planting hole 2 – 3 times the diameter of the tree or shrub’s root ball and no deeper than the root ball itself. Plant trees and shrubs 1 – 2 inches above grade. Planting above grade leaves roots susceptible to desiccation; therefore, it’s imperative to immediately mulch above ground plantings.
Planting Bare Root Trees and Shrubs
Trees and shrubs should be planted at the same depth at which they were growing in the container or field nursery. There is a texture and color change between the trunk or stem and the roots. Planting too deep is a major cause of plant failure, especially in poorly drained clay soil.
Holes for bare-root plants should be dug large enough to accommodate the roots without crowding or twisting. The hole should be no deeper than the original root depth and at least twice the spread of roots. Broken and badly damaged roots should be removed. A mound or cone may be made in the center of the hole to accommodate the spread of roots and allow the tree or shrub to rest at the proper depth while backfilling the hole.
Work the soil under and around the roots to remove air pockets. Firm the soil while filling until the hole is three quarters full, and then fill the hole with water. This will settle soil around the roots. After the water has soaked in, finish filling the hole with soil and water again. If the soil around the plant settles, bring it back up to grade with additional soil.
Thoroughly water B&B, container, and bare-root plants before planting. A dry root ball may not get thoroughly wet at planting. Never leave roots exposed to air. Very fine root hairs, which are not visible to the naked eye, are responsible for moisture and nutrient uptake and are killed when exposed to dry air for even a very short period. Keep the roots damp and covered while preparing the planting hole.
Backfilling the Planting Hole
Studies have shown that in most cases it is not beneficial to apply amendments to the backfill. Do not put crushed stone or gravel in the bottom of the hole! Gravel placed in the bottom of the hole will hinder water movement, thus creating soggy conditions in the bottom of the hole. The best backfill around a new tree or shrub is native soil.
A new tree or shrub has a very limited capacity for utilizing fertilizer until it becomes established. Excessive fertilizer in the root zone can be damaging, so do not add fertilizer to the backfill or dump it into the bottom of the hole. If fertilizer is used at planting or in the first growing season, consider a controlled release or diluted liquid fertilizer on the soil surface. Ideally, young trees and shrubs may be fertilized from March through July.
Newly planted trees and shrubs should be watered well at the time of planting. Natural rainfall is usually not adequate. Generally, young plantings need an equivalent of one inch or more of rain per week. Newly planted trees and shrubs may need to be watered two or three times a week in extremely hot, dry, windy weather because their root systems cannot take up the amount of water needed to replenish the water lost through leaves. Feeling or probing in the soil around the root ball is a way to monitor soil moisture. Apply water slowly at the base of newly installed plants. This is especially important for container grown plants as their soilless mixes can dry or shed water while the bed or surrounding soil remains damp.
Keep a 4-6-inch, grass-free circle around young trees and shrubs the first two to three years. Benefits of mulching to create a weed and turf-free area include reduced plant competition for water and nutrients and even soil temperature and moisture. Keep the grass-free circle filled with two to four inches of organic mulch, such as leaf mold, compost, bark, grass clippings, or straw. DO NOT use plastic under the mulch to prevent weeds. Roots are drawn to the surface and may be damaged by summer heat and winter cold. Do not mound mulch up against the trunk. Keep the mulch 2 – 4 inches away from the trunk. Excessive mulch against a trunk may also result in an environment favorable to disease and insect attack.
Pruning the New Tree
Avoid overpruning new trees. Do not top or cut back shade trees at planting. It does not benefit the plant and often causes an undesirable fork in the main trunk. Do not prune top growth when planting in an attempt to compensate for root loss for either trees or shrubs. Excessive pruning at planting reduces leaf area, which decreases the amount of plant energy generated that is needed to create a healthy root system. The only necessary pruning is the removal of broken or damaged branches. Leave lower limbs intact if possible for the first few seasons. Small lower limbs will provide shade to thin-barked species thus protecting them from sunscald injury.