Recently someone asked in a comment if I had written a post showing my process for planting shrubs. I was thinking about that today and remembered that I had written a post about 1-1/2 years ago that showed how I planted some Leyland Cypress trees in my back yard. I figured a refresher is never a bad idea, so hope you find this post helpful.
I don’t have the best luck with keeping indoor plants alive, but I’ve always had great success with the majority of the trees, shrubs and flowers I’ve planted outside. The only time I can remember something failing is in my 20’s when I planted some shrubs that couldn’t handle a lot of sun, in an area where they got sun almost all day long. That was definitely a newbie mistake. I also planted some azaleas under a massive oak tree that sucked all the moisture out of the soil around it, so the azaleas never did well. Hopefully, I’ve learned from those mistakes.
So the first step when planting anything is to take note of how much sun or shade the area gets where you’ll be planting and buy plants that are well-suited for that environment.
Georgia Red Clay
Here in Georgia, we have lots of this stuff: thick, red clay. If you buy a plant, dig a hole and stick it in this stuff, it will probably live for a while, but it’s highly likely it will struggle and not grow very much, if at all. It’s also likely it won’t survive. All the nurseryman around recommend adding some rich soil amendment or soil conditioner before planting.
You may not have red clay where you live like we do here, so just be sure and ask your local nursery if it’s a good idea for you to amend the soil in your area before planting. What’s the soil like where you live? Is it perfect for growing as is, with nothing else needed. Or, is it goopy and thick like our red clay soil, or, maybe it’s really sandy.
I usually buy soil conditioner in the nursery where I’m purchasing the plants because I’m already there and it’s convenient. This time I purchased it in Lowe’s because I stopped by one afternoon for some pine straw. In addition to soil conditioner, I picked up a few bags of top soil. I don’t ever use just topsoil when planting, but it’s never a bad idea to mix a little in.
Disclaimer: This may not be the way a professional will tell you to do it, but this is what has worked for me in the past. I can’t promise your plants will thrive if you plant them as I do mine, but this is the system that’s always worked for me. Take what you can use from this post and discard the rest. 🙂
So, here’s how I plant shrubs, including the 16 boxwood shrubs I just planted.
I first dig a hole that’s 2-3 times the width of the root ball of the plant. The holes I dug for my boxwood shrubs were mostly double the width of the root ball, with some being a little bigger when I decided to move a shrub further over to the left or the right from where I had originally planned.
I used to dig the holes about twice as deep, too, but I later read somewhere that this isn’t necessary. Apparently the roots primarily go outward and not so much downward, at least in the beginning. Not having to dig so deep lets you put all your energy into digging the hole bigger around.
After I have the hole about twice the width of the root-ball of the shrub, I dump in some top soil and some soil conditioner or soil amendment and stir it all up. As I’m mixing those into the hole I scrape down into the bottom of the hole and into the sides of the hole so that I’m mixing in some of the ground dirt (in my case, clay soil) too.
I personally don’t think it would be a good idea to dig a hole, dump in a bunch of top soil and soil conditioner and then stick the plant into that and fill it up with more top soil and soil conditioner. I just feel that plants need to be surrounded by the soil they will be growing in, but just well-amended so they can get off to a good start. Does make sense?
You can see in the photo below, I’ve mixed in some soil conditioner and a bit of top soil with the existing clay dirt to create a nice, rich mixture of clay dirt, top soil and soil conditioner.
The best way I can describe what it’s like to try to mix soil conditioner and top soil into clay soil is this: it’s similar to attempting to mix cold butter right out of the refrigerator into flour, the clay being the cold butter, only much thicker and heavier. It’s not easy because the clay just wants to stay all stuck together in a big, fat clump. It can be really thick and goopy.
In the past I used a trowel and a shovel to break up the clay and to mix in the soil conditioner. This time I used this “garden/vegetable tiller” and it helped tremendously. (It’s available here: Garden Vegetable Tiller.) I love this thing! I used the flat sharp end to break up the big clumps of clay so I could mix the soil conditioner and top soil all in between the smaller clay pieces. The other end was helpful for mixing everything together.
You can’t really force the soil conditioner into the clay, but you can break down the red clay into small particles and create a clay/rich-soil mixture that will allow the roots of the plant to grow. You can see the bits of red clay chunks all mixed in with the good top soil and conditioner.
You can also sprinkle in a bit of starter fertilizer if you like. I mixed in a very small amount into the soil for each shrub, although I think I may have forgotten that step on a couple. I think I probably did that for this shrub because I can see some of the white powder there on the top right in the photo. That step is completely optional.
Next I remove the burlap from the plant, if it has burlap around the root base. (See this post for why I do that: Should Burlap Be Removed From a Ball & Burlap Plant, Prior to Planting)
Then I take my hands and rough up the dirt around the root base of the plant, exposing the roots a bit more. I don’t do a lot of this, just a little. Then I place the shrub into the center of the hole atop the good mixture I’ve created.
I didn’t really take a photo of this next step, but what I do next is off to the side of the hole, I’ll mix more of the soil conditioner and top soil into the dirt/red clay that I had previously removed from the hole. Then I fill back in around the plant with this amended soil mixture.
If you had the energy while digging your hole initially, you could put the dirt your digging out into a wheel barrow and mix the soil conditioner/topsoil into the dirt while it’s in the wheelbarrow. I take the easy route and just do it beside the hole on the ground. As you’re adding your dirt back in around the hole you can add more soil conditioner if you think it’s needed.
All the nurseryman around here say to leave the top of the root ball slightly up out of the dirt. Some say several inches but I think that’s too much. I usually leave it sticking up/out of the dirt about an inch. I gently tamp down the dirt all around the hole with my feet and hands.
Once you water the plant, it’s probably going to settle down further into the hole, which is why it’s recommended you start with the root-ball slightly sticking up and out of the hole. Plants shouldn’t be down in their planting hole too low because it lets water collect there when it rains, causing the plant to rot/die from too much water/moisture. Does that make sense? Hope I explained that okay.
The arrow below shows approximately where the ground level is for this boxwood shrub, so you can see about how much of this shrub was sticking out right after I finished planting it. Don’t forget to water your plant well once you have it planted.
This planting technique may not be the system you use, but it has worked well for me over the years.
Here’s an example that shows how this system works in my yard. This is how the three Leyland Cypress I planted in October 2014 (1-1/2 year ago) looked right after they were first planted.
Here’s how they look 1 1/2 years later. I took this photo right before sitting down to write this post. Not bad for a being in the ground a year and half…and they aren’t even in full sun which they would prefer.
I also sprinkled a little Triple 13 fertilizer (13-13-13) around them earlier in the spring, so I’m sure that’s helped with their spring growth. In about 2 more years, they will start to give me the screening I need on this side when I’m sitting on the screened porch that’s a full story up.
In an ideal world, they should have been planted a bit further apart, but I wanted them to grow together for screening purposes as quickly as possible, so I planted them a bit closer than is recommended.
This is a photo from that previous post showing the hole I dug for one of the Leyland Cypress trees and the mixture of dirt that I added back to the hole.
Here you can see how the size of the hole compared to the root ball of the tree.
So that’s how these were planted, the same process I’ve detailed above.
And that’s how all the boxwood shrubs were planted here in the front of the house. (View that post here: A Front Yard Makeover With Boxwood Shrubs, Benches & Copper-Roof Dovecote)
Hopefully I’ll have the same success with the boxwood shrubs that I had with the Leyland Cypress. Of course, boxwood shrubs grow much, much slower than Leyland Cypress trees, which is why I purchased the biggest ones I could find. I’ll be a happy girl if they survive and establish well for me. Additional growth can come later. 🙂
If I had to sum this whole post up, it would be: Dig a hole twice as wide as your plant, Amend the soil well with soil conditioner, Don’t plant your plant too low, leaving about an inch or so of the rootball sticking up to allow for settling and water your new plants often until they have become established, which is usually for the first month or so, longer if you’re not getting rain and it’s summertime and hot.
Hope you find this helpful with your planting. Again, your mileage may vary, but this is the process I use when planting shrubs and trees in my yard.