There's so much more to a great yard than just mowing the lawn.

The Nine Steps to Successful Planting

Have you ever noticed that people plant in a variety of ways? I’ve seen people do some bizarre things, from slicing through root balls, to burying stems and stomping on the soil around the root ball. So what is the right way to plant to give a transplant the best chance of survival?

After installing thousands of plants over the past twenty years, here’s the method I’ve developed for planting. It works for almost any plant that comes in a pot, including trees, shrubs, flowers, ornamental grasses, vegetable transplants, herbs and groundcovers.

If you follow these nine steps, you’ll give your new plants a great shot at growing into a healthy, beautiful specimen. You’ll be called a “green thumb” in no time.

1. Rake back the mulch. This is important if you’re planting in an area that has gravel or wood chips spread over the soil surface. You need to rake the mulch away from the planting area so you don’t mix the mulch into the soil of the planting hole during the planting process. Mixing mulch into the soil can cause the plant to not grow as quickly (because of nitrogen deficiency) and makes the area look messy when you’re done.

To prevent this, rake the mulch off the soil at least 1-2 feet wider than the diameter of the planting hole. The larger the plant your dealing with the farther you should rake back the mulch.

2. Dig a wide hole, not a deep hole. A wide hole loosens the soil around the root ball. Loose soil makes it easier for the roots to grow past the root ball into the surrounding soil.How wide? Dig the hole 2-3 times the diameter of the root ball. For example, if you’re planting something with a 6 inch diameter root ball, dig a hole 12 to 18 inches wide.

It’s not necessary to dig a deep hole. You only need to dig it deep enough to match the height of the root ball. In order to keep the area tidy, I use a large bucket to hold the soil that I dig out of the hole.

3. Remove the plant from its container. With the plant still in the pot, I put my hand over the root ball with the stems sticking up through my fingers. I put my other hand on the bottom of the pot, then flip the whole thing over so the plant is upside down. This usually releases the plant from the pot. If the pot doesn’t release, you can gently shake it upside down or squeeze the pot (if it’s flexible) to get the plant out. I then pull the pot off, then turn the plant right side up.

4. Address the roots. If the roots look like they’re gently holding the potting soil together, you don’t need to do anything. If, however, the roots are totally bound together, it’s wise to loosen them before planting. You can rough up the exterior of the root ball your fingers like you’re trying to mess up someone’s hair, or use a hand tool to help, if needed. Once the roots are loosened, it’s ready to plant.

5. Put the plant in the hole. You want the top of the potting soil to ultimately be at the same level as the surrounding soil. If the plant is sitting too low, put some soil back in the hole to raise its height. If the plant is sitting too high, take it out and dig out more soil so it sits lower.

6. Backfill with the soil you dug out of the hole. Shovel some of the soil from the bucket into the gap between the root ball and the surrounding soil. You can firmly press the first few scoops around the bottom of the root ball the hold it in place.

Then with a more gentle hand, fill the rest of the gap with soil until you reach the top of the root ball. Don’t press down the rest of the backfill soil put in the hole too firmly. You want the soil to be loose so the roots can easily grow into it. You don’t need to cover the top of the root ball with backfill soil.

If you’re planting a large plant, you’ll probably end up with extra soil in the bucket. Find somewhere else to spread it to dispose of it rather than piling it on top of the root ball.

7. Make a basin. When planting a tree or shrub, I like to make a 3 inch high circle of soil just outside the root ball. This lip helps keep the water in the right spot when you hand water. If you don’t make a basin, the water will run over the soil surface downhill rather than soaking into the root ball. Your new plant might dehydrate before it grows a new root system.

The basin allows a puddle to form over the root ball and lets it soak in the soil. Basins may not be practical around individual smaller plants, but you can make a basin around a group of small plants, if needed.

8. Water. After the plant is installed and the soil is back in place, it’s crucial to water. I like to soak the root ball and surrounding soil right after planting, then check the moisture level of both every day for a week or two.

If the soil settles too much in some areas, you can add some more. The biggest risk to new plants is either too little or too much water until they grow a new root system, so it’s important to check the soil moisture often. Be sure to water if it dries out.

9. Mulch. Once you’ve watered thoroughly, rake or push the mulch back over the soil. Keep it a few inches away from the stems or trunk of the plant. If the mulch is too thick around the stems or trunk, it can cause them to rot from too much moisture. Also make the mulch layer a little thinner over the root ball so it doesn’t shift around and smother the stems after you walk away.

So those are the nine steps to successful planting. You may need to modify them to fit your situation, but they’re a great set of guidelines. I see your thumb turning greener already!


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