Planting new trees and shrubs is not a difficult job, but one to get right, if you want your new plants to have the best start in life. The most important considerations are root health, weather, soil conditions and aftercare.
This advice is suitable for all trees and shrubs, whether containerised, bare-root or rootballed.
When to do it
Planting is best done between October and April.
Container-grown plants can be planted any time of the year, but are easier to care for if planted in autumn or winter, as they need less watering than ones planted in spring or summer.
Bare-root and rootballed trees and shrubs are only available in autumn and winter. They should be planted immediately, but if this is not possible, then they can be heeled in (temporary planting in the soil to prevent the roots drying out) until planting is possible.
How to plant a tree or large shrub
Plants will not grow where soil contains too little air, insufficient nutrients or where soil moisture is either excessive or insufficient. Pre-planting soil preparation should aim to improve these conditions:
- Loosen the soil generally to eliminate compaction and improve drainage
- Improve background fertility by incorporating fertiliser, organic matter and lime
- Ideally, assess the need for lime with a soil pH test
- Improving the soil for a wide area (2-3m (6½-10ft) around the tree) is best practice
- If soils are waterlogged over winter consider installing drainage, or an alternative is to plant on a slight mound, about 25-30cm (10in-1ft) high and 1m (39in) in diameter. Excess moisture can kill the finer roots, which become blackened and sour smelling. Wet roots are more susceptible to disease, especially Phytophthora root rot
Guide to planting
- Remove plants from containers or fabric wrapping (some specimen trees specify that the wrapping be left on under the terms of their guarantee, but normally fabric wrappings should be taken off)
- Tease out and spread the roots to get an idea of their spread. Dig a planting hole that is no deeper than the roots, but is up to three times the diameter of the root system
- If the sides or base of the planting hole are compacted, break the soil up with a fork before planting
- With container grown plants, the top layers of compost should be scraped away, and the point where the roots flare out should be near the soil surface
- Place the plant in the planting hole
- Refill the planting hole carefully, placing soil between and around all the roots to eliminate air pockets
- There is little evidence that adding extra fertiliser and organic matter to the planting hole helps; in fact this practice can hinder plant establishment as the organic matter decomposes and may cause the plant to sink. There is also less incentive for the roots to grow out into the surrounding soil
- Firm the soil gently, avoiding compacting the soil into a hard mass
Drought stress is common with newly planted trees and shrubs. Even in a cool, wet summer, the rain rarely replenishes soil moisture stores fully. The soil may be dry around the roots even when the surface appears moist.
Dry, windy conditions are especially likely to lead to water shortages. With experience, it is possible to detect the dull, lifeless foliage indicative of drought stress but by then the tree has already been damaged. Ideally anticipate water loss, and irrigate to prevent damage.
Weeds, lawns and other vegetation intercept water before it reaches the roots of newly planted trees and shrubs.
- Keep a vegetation-free circle at least 1.2m (4ft) in diameter around the plant for its first three years to help avoid this problem
- The circle can be kept weed free through hoeing or use of contact or systemic weedkillers
- Laying mulch over this circle is also helpful, although take care to leave a collar of 10cm (4in) around the woody stems that is free of mulch, to prevent the risk of rotting the bark
Planting too deep is a common cause of tree death. Aim to plant at the same depth that the tree was growing in the nursery. Poor establishment and brown leaves are also sometimes encountered after planting.
Newly planted trees often need protection from mice and voles, rabbits and deer to prevent being ring-barked.