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How to Plant a Tree or Shrub

Learn the right way to plant trees and shrubs so they'll flourish and enhance the appearance of your home.

Trees and shrubs.

Selection and Placement

Note that most of the information you need for planting trees and shrubs and caring for them is found on the plant tag.

  • Look at the area where you plan on putting the new addition. Make sure the amount of sunlight the planting site receives matches the amount the plant requires.
  • Consider the eventual height and width of the plant. Visualize what the scene will be in 10 - 15 years. Many trees grow to overpower or even endanger the homes they are near. Many shrubs that are placed too close to foundations rub against the exterior walls and cause structural damage.
  • Remember that trees and shrubs can take years to develop into the specimens you see in photographs, but there are some species and varieties that grow faster than others. Check the growth rate of the tree or shrub if you need a plant that grows quickly. For instant gratification, buy a larger plant.
  • Test the existing soil condition. You can adjust the soil pH to suit the plant, whether its taste runs from acidic to alkaline. Another approach would be to select plants that fit in with your existing pH.
  • Consider right-of-way, overhead and underground utilities property lines, and zoning regulations before deciding on a location. Remember to plan for the mature size of the plant.

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Before beginning any excavation, check for underground utilities. Call the North America One Call Referral Service at 1-888-258-0808 (or just dial 811) for a national directory of utility companies.


Trees and shrubs come from the nursery as bare-root, balled and burlapped, or container-grown.

  • Bare-root plants are dormant and should be planted as soon as possible. Soak the roots before planting. If you can't plant immediately, keep the roots wrapped in moist newspaper or peat moss. Roses are often planted as bare-root plants.
  • Balled and burlapped (B&B) plants are dug with the root ball intact, then wrapped for shipment and planting. B&B trees are heavy. You might want to arrange some help when moving and planting these.
  • Container-grown plants are moved to larger containers at the nursery as they grow, until they are ready for sale. Container sizes from 2 to 20 gallons are the most commonly available.

Fall and spring are the preferred planting times. The plantings then have time to adjust to their new location before the harsher weather of winter or summer arrives. You’ll also find a wider selection of plants in the garden centers at these times. When they are properly planted, you can transplant B&B and container plants any time the soil is not frozen.

Good to Know

Both B&B and container-grown trees are more expensive and harder to handle than bare-root. However, they will adjust to their new home more quickly since they are being planted with the soil in which they've been growing.

Dig and Prep the Soil

The old nurseryman’s saying, "dig a $40 hole for a $20 tree," is not just a cliché. To grow to their fullest potential, a new plant needs room, so now is not the time to cut corners.

For B&B and container-grown plants, dig a hole at least twice as wide (three times as large is even better) as and no deeper than the root ball or container. The bottom of the hole should be flat.

A bare-root plant will need a smaller hole, but it still must be big enough so that the roots are not crowded.

Prep the Soil

Freshly planted trees and shrubs appreciate loose soil that drains well. Add soil amendments if you soil needs organic matter such as compost or dried manure. Otherwise just backfill the planting hole with the soil that was originally removed when digging the planting hole. This results in a stronger root system.

If you wish to add fertilizer, mix it in at this time. Use an organic type, such as bone meal or a food specifically formulated for your plant. Roots are tender at this time, so take care not to burn them with too much fertilizer. Many container plants already have plant food in the soil mix.

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Good to Know

If you are planting a shrub bed, roto-till and amend the entire area to promote good root growth.

Planting and Positioning

Flowering shrub.

Never pick up a tree by the trunk — this can damage the tree. Always lift by the root ball or container. Place the plant at the same level as it was in its container. Do not pile soil up on the trunk and DO NOT plant too deep. Turn the tree or shrub to face the desired direction.

  • To remove a container, tap the sides and slide the plant out. If the container is tight, cut the container away. Loosen any tightly bound encircling roots before placing the plant in the hole.
  • For a B&B tree, loosen and remove as much fabric as possible. Burlap wrapping will decay over time; synthetic fabrics will not.
  • Planting bare-root trees and shrubs is slightly different. Shape a cone of soil in the bottom of the hole for the roots to rest on. Set the bare roots over the cone and tamp down the soil around them. 

Whether you have bare-root, B&B, or container-grown plants, avoid damaging the roots while planting.

Post-Planting Checklist

Don't stop now, you're almost done. These last few steps can make the difference between success and failure:

  • Pruning is recommended only to remove dead or broken branches. Some fruit trees need to be shaped and thinned to promote fruiting.
  • Staking a newly planted tree may or may not be necessary. Large trees could use some support. Smaller trees do best when allowed to settle in naturally. If you stake, make sure that the cord or wire does not cut into the tree bark. You can use segments cut from an old garden hose to cushion the cord against the trunk. If you are in an area with high winds, consider staking any new tree.
  • Fertilizing a newly planted tree or shrub is often debated, as too much fertilizer can burn the roots. If you didn’t add any fertilizer when planting, choose an organic supplement or check the plant tag for recommendations. If you don't fertilize now, it's a good idea to begin feeding during the second year of growth.
  • Watering is not optional. You must water well when planting. Make an area around the plant to collect water by building up a ridge of soil 2 -3 inches high to serve as a water collection basin. Provide water for one to two years, especially during dry weather.
  • Mulching will keep the soil moist, but do not let the mulch touch the trunk of the tree or shrub — the moisture from the mulch can rot the bark on the trunk.

Follow these steps and your new plant will be a beautiful and healthy addition to your landscape for years to come.

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