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How to plant practically anything 5/11
(This article is adapted from the Consumer Reports Lawn & garden guide.)

Most of us take planting for granted, counting on nature and good fortune to compensate for any gaps in technique. Yet decades of research have shown that proper planting can reduce the need for water, fertilizer, and pesticides, while helping plants survive normal disease and other stresses. Indeed, many plants live or die based on how they are planted. Since planting trees and shrubs seems to pose some of the greatest challenges, we focus on these plants, with some additional information about other plants.

Choosing native plants

Weaning your yard and lawn of chemicals and high-maintenance plants can save you time and money in addition to being good for the environment. Native plants are already adapted to your area and often require less water and care. Visit nearby nature preserves and botanical gardens to see what's growing in your type of landscape; for example, whether it’s a shady woodland area, or near water, or in full sun. Use your cell-phone camera to take pictures of plants that you like, and show them to staff at local nurseries, where many of those same plants are available.

Nursery and botanical-garden staffs are good sources of information on where to buy native plants. There’s also the Native Plant Information Network where you can explore a huge plant database as well as how-to articles on creating native plant gardens.

Cooperative-extension services also offer free information suited to your area. Find your local cooperative extension program on the U.S. Agriculture Department website.

Getting them home

The first step to proper planting is getting your new tree or shrub—or any other plant—safely from the nursery to your garden. Some tips:

• Protect leaves from wind buffeting by wrapping them with burlap or other protective material.
• Pick up plants from the bottom, never by the trunk, especially in spring when bark is tender. This is especially important for plants with heavy root balls, such as those that are balled in burlap or in larger, 15-gallon containers.
• Protect plants from sun and wind if they won't go in the ground for a day or two. Cover the container or root ball with mulch if you'll store them for more than a few days. Also be sure the root ball doesn't freeze or dry out.
• Wrap trees and shrubs to prevent wind damage on the way home.

Soil enrichment: a common goof

Packing enriched soil—called amending the soil—around the roots instead of merely replacing the soil you excavated seems logical, yet it may do more harm than good. That's because the difference in texture between the packed enriched soil and native soil creates a layer that moisture and roots may not penetrate.

Two exceptions to the no-amendment rule: 1) when your native soil is so sandy that a moist handful won't form a clod; and 2) when you're amending an entire planting bed, rather than just the soil around the root ball. Amending the entire bed avoids the soil-layering problem. If you choose to amend, don't overdo it; use one-third amendment to two-thirds native soil.

When planting bulbs, you need to follow the very specific directions that come with the plant and be sure to leave loose soil well below the depth where the bulb is placed so that the roots can easily penetrate the soil.

Planting bare-root plants

Bare-root plants usually retain more roots after harvest than balled transplants. Lack of a root ball makes inspection and trimming damaged portions and encircling roots easier while eliminating the chance of mismatched soil. Less weight also means easier shipping and handling, and a lower price.

Bare-root plants are available only in the dormant season, usually late December into March or April, south to north. Choices include roses, grapes, and cane fruits, and fruit and shade trees, among others.

Before putting shovel to soil, unwrap the roots, trim any that are broken, and soak them in a bucket of water for two to three hours. The soaking helps re-hydrate any dried roots and prepare them for the soil.

Some bulbs can benefit from re-hydration if indicated in the planting instructions.

Planting step by step

1. Dig a hole wide and deep enough to fit roots without bending them. Support the roots with a firm cone of excavated soil high enough so that the plant sits as high as or slightly higher than it did originally. (Check the main stem's bark for a change in color or texture.) In colder regions, plant grafted roses deeper than they grew.

2. Begin backfilling excavated soil over and around the roots by hand, firming the soil and holding the plant in position as you work. When halfway done, water the soil to settle it and eliminate air pockets. If the cone settles and lowers the plant's height, gently pull the plant up and firm the soil beneath it. Continue backfilling, watering, and checking the plant height until you're done.

3. Finish by creating a ridge or berm of soil around the planting hole and water thoroughly. Then don't water again until growth is well under way in spring.

Planting container plants

Most trees and shrubs sold at nurseries and home centers are grown in containers in warm, sunny climates before being shipped around the country. Their chief virtue: They can be sold and planted throughout the year. Contained roots also minimize root loss when transplanting. Also, while heavier than bare-root plants, they're lighter and easier to move than balled versions.

The main problem occurs on plants that have lived in their containers long enough for encircling roots to strangle each other. Look for encircling roots on the surface of the root ball and avoid such plants. And trim off circling roots and gently roughen and open the root ball to encourage new root growth when transplanting container plants.

Differing soil between the container and your yard can also compromise root growth. Minimize that change by avoiding soil amendments when planting.

Planting step by step

1. Water thoroughly, allow the water to drain, and turn the plant upside down to slide out the root ball. If necessary, set the container on its side, gently roll it, and tap the bottom until it releases. Then cut off any circling roots and gently open the matted root mass.

2. Dig a planting hole at least twice as wide and almost as deep as the root ball to allow for settling soil; failure to do that is a common cause of transplant failure. Leave a plateau of undisturbed soil to support the root ball, then excavate around the sides to make room for roots.

3. Backfill with the soil you removed, watering as you work to settle soil and eliminate air pockets. Finish by fashioning a ridge or berm of higher soil around the hole to guide water to the roots. Be sure the trunk base sits above the water and keep any mulch away from the trunk.

Planting balled-in-burlap plants

This is the traditional way to transplant larger evergreen trees and shrubs where bare-root isn't an option. These plants are also available longer than bare-root plants and are less sensitive than container plants to differing soil.

More weight and more lost roots during planting are a balled plant's main disadvantages. That's why you should transplant these plants in fall, winter, or early spring, when their dependence on roots is minimal.

Planting step by step

1. Dig a hole at least twice as wide and nearly as deep as the root ball. Set the root ball on undisturbed soil that's unlikely to settle further. Then dig out around the sides for backfill and root growth.

2. Remove the covering over the root ball. If it's burlap, peel it back about half way so it's completely buried and will gradually decay. If it's synthetic, remove it by cutting sections away and rocking the plant to remove the section it sits on. If you need to stake the plant to keep it upright, drive it into the soil next to the root ball, not through it.

3. Backfill with the soil you removed one-third to halfway down and water to settle soil and eliminate air pockets. Once backfilling is finished, create a ridge or berm of soil around the hole and water thoroughly.

Related links

Choosing the right grass to plant: interactive guide to common lawn grasses.

Getting rid of dandelions.

Copyright © 2003-2012 by Consumers Union of United States., Inc., 101 Truman Avenue, Yonkers, NY 10703, a nonprofit organization. No downloading, transmission, photocopying, or commercial use permitted. Visit www.GreenerChoices.org.