There’s a way to get exercise, provide cleaner air, wildlife shelter and leave a legacy by doing one thing. Talk about “two birds with one stone!” That thing is tree and shrub planting. Don’t worry about backbreaking work; it’s easier than you think.

It’s a workout, but unless you’re planting large trees, all you need is a trowel or shovel. Plants absorb CO2 and emit O2, making them nature’s perfect air filters. Given their long lifespan, they’ll continue your legacy long after you’ve been planted.

Do your homework before digging and choose the right plants for your climate. Find the best location, making sure root systems won’t interfere with foundations and driveways. Until you’re ready to dig, keep your plants sheltered and watered.

Hole size is generally twice the root ball’s width unless it’s compacted soil/heavy clay. Then it’s three to four times the width which loosens the soil allowing the roots to spread out. Depth is always the root ball’s depth.

Trees and shrubs are packaged in three ways: Larger plants are usually balled-and-burlapped or “B&B” in landscapese; smaller plants are often bareroot; and container-grown plants come in all sizes.

“B&B” Plants

  • Check depth: With the plant in the hole, place a yardstick across the top of the root ball.
  • If it’s at ground level, face the plant’s best side to your primary viewpoint.
  • Remove the rope holding the burlap in place.
  • Promote root spreading by:
  • Pulling the sides of natural burlap down as much as possible;
  • Completely removing plastic burlap;
  • Completely removing wire caging if possible, or cutting off the top two rungs.
  • Never let burlap show aboveground; it wicks moisture away from the plant.
  • Always backfill the hole with the soil you removed.
  • Do NOT amend the soil! Amended soil not only limits roots from spreading to find moisture, but may also draw too much moisture from the surrounding area.
  • Backfill two-thirds of the hole and add water; this settles the soil. Finish backfilling.
  • Tamp the soil at the plant’s base creating a “bowl” to collect water. Hold the plant upright when tamping.
  • Apply 3-4 inches of shredded bark mulch or wood chips over a wide area surrounding the plant without piling it against the plant’s base.
  • This conserves moisture and reduces competition from grass and weeds.
  • Water the plant every seven to ten days for the first growing season if there’s little rain.

Container-Grown Plants

  • Follow the B&B directions, adding the following.
  • Water the plant right before planting; removal from the container is easier.
  • Remove the plant:
  • Hit the container’s sides with your palm while rotating the container. This loosens the plant.
  • Brace the container between your feet.
  • Grab the plant’s base and gently pull the plant out of the container.
  • Cut off larger containers.
  • Check the root ball for bind. Bunched-up roots will continue to grow that way.
  • Make four evenly-spaced half-inch cuts from top to bottom of the root ball.
  • Free the roots by scraping the sides with a screwdriver.

Bareroot Plants

  • Bareroots dry out quickly, so soak them for up to 24 hours. Remove only when the ground is ready to receive them.
  • Dig the hole the width of the spread-out roots.
  • Create a small mound in the hole’s center.
  • Cut off broken roots and those longer than the rest.
  • Carefully spread the roots over the mound.
  • Keep the plant’s base at ground level. The base is the place where the trunk branches out into roots.
  • Optional: Add water-holding polymers to the backfill to help conserve water for the first growing season. They capture moisture for later release as the soil dries.

Rules and Exceptions

All rules were made to broken. Here’s when you should and shouldn’t do so:

  • NO amending the soil.
  • Unless you’re planting rosebushes, smaller shrubs and hedges.
  • NO fertilizing.
  • Unless the backfill is poor quality soil. Then use a balanced, slow-release brand. These feed your plants for 12 – 18 months, by which the roots are established in the backfill.
  • NO staking.
  • Unless your tree is in a windy location. Stake up to a year using two – three stakes. Connect the stakes to the tree with wire, shielding the bark with rubber hose.
  • NO wrapping.
  • Unless you have thin-bark trees in the winter. Paper tree wraps or WHITE (no dark!) drainage tile from the first set of branches to one inch below ground keeps the tree safe from frost cracking and gnawing critters. Remove wrapping in the spring so the trunk can expand.