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A Newer Way to Plant Large Trees and Shrubs, Part 1


Gardening methods, and the rationale behind the methods, are passed on from person to person, but they are not always grounded in the best current scientific evidence. For example, the planting methods I learned in college are no longer necessarily what are recommended today. I seek to employ the most rigorously experimented and tested methods available to me at the time.

Sometimes, homeowners and professional landscapers, and landscape architects alike, utilize planting methods which yield mixed results. A quick internet search for instructions to plant a balled and burlapped tree, B&B for short, shows a wide variety of diagrams. B&B trees and shrubs are grown in clay-based soil, root pruned in the nursery, then dug and wrapped in burlap for sale. Larger material comes with wire baskets to add greater support for the root ball in transport. Some literature encourages one to plant the entire tree with burlap and wire basket intact, and I assumed this to be okay. But over time, I have found there are a number of issues with this approach which decrease the chances of successful transplanting.

An old adage concerning transplanted plant performance is that plants, “Sleep, creep, then leap.” Freshly transplanted garden plants tend to grow very little in their first year of growth while the roots are getting established. The second year, gardeners should expect a healthy plant to show some moderate signs of growth and then show explosive growth in the third year. The key issue is getting those roots into native soil as quickly as possible. But there are a couple of barriers to overcome first. One is the physical wrapping of the root ball itself. Burlap and other biodegradable material is slow to decompose, taking sometimes years (in burlap’s case) to break down to the point where roots are able to penetrate. Why not get those roots settled in their new home, setting up shop, sooner rather than later? The wire basket can girdle, choking off the roots as they grow to fill the space in the basket mesh. One should at least cut the basket out of the top half of the root ball, allowing roots to grow unimpeded.

The second issue or barrier to good root establishment is the direction of root growth. The roots of naturally growing trees grow out from the trunk like wheel spokes.
Roots of nursery grown material, container grown material in particular, end up growing into a
large circular root mass, never moving out into the transplanted soil. B&B plant stems are often buried over time and in the wrapping process cause new and inferior roots to form, compounding the problems newly planted trees may face.

In Part 2 next week, we will discuss steps a gardener can take to correct these root issues and some tips for planting. Until then, happy digging.

Josh Steffen
Horticulture Manager

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