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Before choosing a tree or shrub, it is important to think carefully about the conditions of your site and what you want the tree or shrub to do for you.
Assessing Site Conditions
What do you want the plant to do?
Selecting a Plant
Planting a Tree or Shrub
The success of your new tree or shrub begins with planting at the proper time of year. As a rule of thumb, deciduous plants should go in the ground when dormant (leafless) but when the earth is unfrozen, in late fall or early spring. Evergreen trees and shrubs will continue to take up nourishment through the colder months and should be planted at a time of year that is less challenging for them to establish themselves, neither too hot nor too cold.
Dig a hole at least 2 to 3 times as wide as the tree's root ball and the same depth. If the tree is "balled and burlapped," place the root ball in the hole and cut the twine wrapped around the trunk. Roll the burlap off the root ball so that it lies flat in the hole. If you can remove the burlap without damaging the rootball, then do so. Otherwise, let it lie on the bottom of the hole. Natural burlap will decay but synthetic burlap needs to be removed.
The top of the root ball should be slightly higher than the ground level. Heavy trees and shrubs usually settle once they are planted and watered. Ideally, the flare of the tree (the bottom of the trunk that flares out) will be level with the soil line. It's better to plant your tree too high than too low.
Shrubs and trees purchased in containers should be removed from their pots. Roots should be inspected. If the plant is pot-bound, either tease the roots free or take a knife and cut vertically on opposite sides of the root ball to loosen the roots. Plant container trees and shrubs at the same height they have been planted in their pot.
There are two schools of thought regarding soil amendments. One says do not amend because if you add too much organic matter to the soil the roots will never venture further than the nutrient-rich area. The other advocates amending your soil with several shovel-fulls of compost to give the young plant a head start. As long as the compost is incorporated into the native soil, the plant will be fine. Both methods work; it's a matter of personal preference.
After you plant, mulch the tree. Apply 2 inches of composted bark chips or any suitable mulch. The mulch will help retain moisture in the ground and suppress weeds. Remember not to mulch up to the bark of the tree or you'll create a damp environment that is an open invitation to pests and disease.
With the mulch, create a saucer-shaped depression around the newly planted area. Fill with water. Water the tree or shrub thoroughly immediately after planting and again the following day to completely saturate the root ball. Conscientious watering for the first several years of a newly planted tree's life will make all the difference in its survival, particularly during the heat of the summer.
If you are planting a young tree in a windy site, staking may be advisable until the roots develop. If the trunk is less than 2 inches in diameter, then one 2x2 stake driven into the ground close to the trunk and attached with plastic ties is sufficient. If the trunk is more than 2 inches thick, use 2 or 3 stakes on opposite sides to anchor the tree.
When handling a tree or shrub, make sure that you never pick the plant up by its trunk. You will destroy tiny hair roots that aid in water uptake. These roots take 48 hours to grow back. Pick up your tree in the container or by the root ball.
Every tree and shrub has a good side and a bad side; make sure you position your plant in its hole so it looks its best.