How to plant a tree -- 7-7-14

(This week’s flower is the Common Mullein, also known as Verbascum Thapsus. The National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Wildflowers (Eastern Region) says that Native Americans once lined their moccasins with its leaves to keep their feet warm. For an enlarged view, click on the picture.)

It may be hot now, but before we know it, there will be a chill in the air, which makes autumn one of the best times of the year to plant trees and shrubs.

Why? Because fall’s combination of cool air above keeps the upper part of the plant dormant, while fall’s rains and warm soil below encourage root growth. And root growth is what you want, since trees typically lose one-third of their roots when they’re transplanted.

Unless you’re moving a tree on your own property from one site to another, you’ll probably buy one of these three types:

1. Container-grown, in which the plant comes in a plastic pot or a peat pot.

2. Balled-and-burlapped, in which the plant is dug up with the root ball intact, then wrapped in a burlap sheet and secured with twine or wire to keep it together.

3. Bare-root trees, which come without any dirt on the roots, although they may be packed with sawdust, peat moss, or the roots covered with a gel that prevents them from drying out.

Which is the best kind to buy?

In 2011 the University of Florida cited two studies that found that there was no significant growth difference between bare-root and balled-and-burlapped trees. The author of one of those studies, Nina Bassuk of Cornell University, recommended that if bare root trees can’t be planted immediately, they should be dipped in agricultural hydrogel. Not all experts agree that these are safe for the home gardener. For them, Bassuk suggests a dip in a slurry of mud.

For container-grown trees, you should remove the pot and trim off any roots that seem to be damaged or which are girdling the root ball. Next, take a sharp knife and (wearing leather gloves to avoid injury) cut an X in the bottom of the root section and spread it apart to encourage roots to grow outward.

For balled-and-burlapped plants, place the tree in the hole, then cut away the burlap. Again, trim away any damaged or girdling roots, but keep pruning to a minimum.

Then there are the bare-root trees. They’re usually cheaper, more portable and you may be able to get varieties that are not available, locally, since they can be shipped much more easily. But they require different planting methods.

Now, to planting. By this time, you should have chosen a site that isn’t too marshy or shady. Most trees like sun and dislike “wet feet.” Last week we talked about considerations such as whether what you want to plant will grow too large for its location or dump leaves into your rain gutters.

Once those matters are settled, place a tarp on the ground next to the site. This will make clean-up easier later. Then you can begin to dig.

Old hands in the nursery business used say it’s not good to put “a $10 tree in a 50-cent hole.” That’s still good advice. For container-grown and burlapped trees, dig a circular hole about six inches wider on each side than the roots you’re burying. Then make sure when the tree goes into the hole, the root matter isn’t any lower in the ground than it was in the nursery. A little higher is better, actually, since there is bound to be some settling.

Once you’ve put half the dirt back into the hole, add water to make sure there are no air pockets which would allow the roots to dry out. Place the rest of the dirt inside the hole, then water again.

Don’t put fertilizer into the hole; it will dry out the roots. Check with the nursery or mail-order company for specific what-and-how-much fertilizer recommendations for your tree.

To stake or not to stake? Sources I checked are divided on this, but generally agreed that the staking shouldn’t be so tight that the support (never bare wire) digs into the tree trunk.

For bare-root trees, the process is a bit different. The best explanation I could find came from Washington State University Extension’s Spokane County office, which you can read in its entirety at

First, soak the bare roots for at least 20 minutes. Then, the fact sheet says: “To plant bare root trees, the planting hole is dug in a saucer shape, two to three times the width of the root spread. The hole should be wider at the top than (at) the bottom with sloped walls.”

At the bottom of the hole, a mound of dirt should be created, so that the root flare -- the point at which the roots begin to spread out from the trunk -- is slightly above the level of the ground.

While backfilling around the roots, use your hands to work the soil in, so that there are no air pockets that can cause roots to dry out.

Finally, top with three inches of organic mulch, but no closer than six inches to the tree trunk.

Should you prune a newly planted tree or not? Because the tree is already undergoing the shock of adjusting to a new home, limit pruning to the removal of dead or damaged limbs.


A friend recently told me his weeping cherry tree had been set upon by a horde of Japanese beetles. These non-native pests can be controlled, but not without some work.

The University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Information Center recommends a number of pesticide controls, which you can read about at That article also notes the danger of pesticide overuse, because, among other things, it might also kill beneficial insects.

The University of Kentucky Entomology Department has a detailed article on the beetles and their control, at

The article explains that beetles emerge and begin feeding in June. They chow down like hungry people at a restaurant buffet for four to six weeks. During that time, they mate, the females lay their eggs in the oil and then die. The eggs hatch into grubs and feed on grass roots until the soil temperature goes down to 50 degrees F.

So what we have is hungry adults and their babies, both doing a lot of damage. You can hand-pick the adult beetles and drown them in soapy water, kill them with pesticides -- check with local extension agents for recommendations -- and you can attack the grubs below the soil.

First, check for grubs by turning up a patch of turf about two foot square. If you have grubs, you’ll see them. They’re white, c-shaped and no larger than a penny.

Your weapon? A substance called milky spore that, according to the Clemson University Extension Service, contains Bacillus popillae and Bacillus lentimorbus. It’s applied to turf, then watered in and can persist in the soil for years. It kills grubs after they eat it, but not before they spread it through the soil.

According to the University of Illinois Extension, apply milky spore to the lawn at the rate of one teaspoon every four feet in rows four feet apart. The idea is to create a grid pattern. It is not toxic to plants or animals, but the lawn should not be mowed immediately after application.

(Did you enjoy this column? Please send suggestions or constructive criticism to Feel free to use a pseudonym or a “pen name.”)





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