Buy trees and shrubs bare-root, in containers, or with roots and soil wrapped in burlap. Bare-root plants are the most economical. There's no heavy soil to manage or containers to plant. But bare-root plants, which include only deciduous or otherwise dormant plants such as roses and fruit trees, are usually available only from winter to early spring. You can buy plants in containers and burlap throughout the growing season. Plants in containers are usually the most convenient to purchase but you may compromise the cost, ease of handling, and availability. Plants with roots wrapped in burlap may be heavy and difficult to handle. Here are the steps for planting a tree.
Site the Tree. Research the mature size of your tree and measure to locate the hole at the proper site. For example, measure a circle 6 feet across, if the plant label says the tree will spread to 6 feet. Note its height in relation to your house, windows, overhead wires, and views. Mark the center of the planting hole where the mature plant can grow without rubbing against buildings or obstructing utilities, traffic, or desirable views.
Dig the hole. Measure the depth and width of the soil in your tree's container. Dig a hole to that depth and two to three times wider. Pile the excavated soil to the side to be used later. Loosen the soil around the sides of the hole to help roots penetrate into the native soil. Don't loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole because the disturbed soil may settle and leave the tree planted too deeply.
Plant the tree. Slip the tree out of its pot or remove the burlap and ties. Prune off only those roots that tightly circle the trunk or are broken. With your hand, loosen and gently spread roots that circle the root ball. Set your tree in the hole, and lay a shovel handle across hole to check the planting depth. The top of the root ball should just touch the shovel handle. Add or remove soil until the top of the root ball is at the appropriate level.
If planting a bare-root tree, shape a small mound of soil in the center of the planting hole, and adjust the tree height until the base of the plant is at the correct level. Spread the roots over the mound of soil without bending or breaking them.
Fill the hole and water. Fill the hole half full with the excavated soil. Water thoroughly and allow to drain. Fill with the remaining soil and rake it gently into a low mound over the planting hole. Pull the soil away from the trunk to form a 4 to 6-inch-high, doughnut-shaped ring around the outside of the planting hole. Water again gently.
If you're planting in very poor soil, or if you are planting a container-grown plant in a lightweight soil mix, amend the excavated soil with 1/3 compost before backfilling.
Mulch your newly planted shrub with 2 to 4 inches of shredded bark to conserve moisture and prevent weeds. Keep the mulch 1 to 2 inches away from the trunk.
Select trees and shrubs that thrive in your specific soil, sun exposure, and climate. Plants that need moist soil will languish in sandy, dry soil, for example.
Choose shrubs and trees with more than one season of interest. Look for attractive foliage, branching, flowers, fruit, and bark.
Photography by Sabin Gratz/National Gardening Association.