As mentioned in previous articles, the fall is the best time of the year to plant trees and shrubs since the top parts will not grow much due to the cold, but the roots, which are insulated by the soil, continue to grow at a slower rate.

The plants will be better able to handle the hot, dry conditions of the following summer. One of the essential parts of the establishment of these plants is planting them correctly. Poorly installed ones will suffer and decline.

The planting hole should be twice the size of the root ball and the same depth as the root ball. Loosen the friable soil surrounding the root ball will encourage the rapid growth of roots into those areas. If the roots are pot-bound, meaning that they have wrapped themselves around the rootball tightly, break them up with three or four cuts with a knife on the sides.

Next, those with wire baskets and burlap should remain on the tree or shrub only until it is placed in the planting hole to prevent the root ball’s breaking during handling. Once the plant is resting in the hole, you should remove as much of these materials as possible.

Wire baskets do rust over time. Unfortunately, before this happens, they might girdle rapidly growing roots. Some nurseries use treated burlap, which does not decompose rapidly. Also, some balled and burlapped trees are wrapped with nylon cord and even wire. Also, burlap that rises above the ground can serve as a wick, drawing desperately needed moisture away from the roots.

Take a few minutes to clip burlap, ties, wire baskets, and other supporting materials away from the top and sides of the root ball after it is in position.

When filling in the holes, backfill them with only native soil. Avoid filling the hole with organic amendments such as peat moss, compost, or topsoil. Filling a planting hole in clay soil with lots of organic matter is like putting a sponge in a clay pot, disrupting the moisture balance.

In a wet year, the planting hole will collect excess moisture resulting in root rots and poor plant performance. Do not place any fertilizer in the planting hole. Wait until it becomes established before fertilizing. Apply a two to four-inch layer of a fine-textured organic mulch such as pine straw, pine bark, or cypress to mulch. Avoid putting any more mulch, leading to rotting at the root collar and increased insect activity.

Finally, thoroughly water the trees and shrubs at planting. A light sprinkle on the foliage will not work. You want to be sure that the root ball has been thoroughly wetted. Under very dry conditions, filling the planting hole with water about halfway through the backfilling process can give good results.

Correctly planting trees in shrubs in our heavy clay soils is not difficult. Doing so will increase the chances of the plant surviving and prospering in the home landscape.

Timothy Daly is an Agricultural and Natural Resource Extension Agent with UGA Extension Gwinnett. He can be contacted at 678-377-4011 or


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