Go Plant A Tree!

Go Plant A Tree!

Viburnum nudum ‘Brandywine’

Amsonia hubrichtii.  ©2020 North Creek Nurseries

Among the most frequent questions I get is: “Is now an okay time to plant?”

We all get this question, from March through November. My answer is always an enthusiastic “yes!”

Spring is a great time to plant because the weather is cool and the water needs of the establishing plant material isn’t high. Summer planting is fine too, you just have to keep an extra eye on plants’ water needs. Matter of fact, early to mid summer is the best time to be in the garden center because that’s when selection is at its peak, especially with late emerging plants finally up and at ’em such as hardy hibiscus and warm-season ornamental grasses. And of course, there’s fall time!

“Fall is Fantastic!”

Fall is an especially great time to plant because the weather is cooler (thus plants are demanding less water) but the ground is still warm from the summer temperatures (especially this year!). These conditions promote great root growth. Planting now and getting plants acclimated will translate into a plant that’s ahead of the game come spring time! So yes, even in November, you can plant! Coincidently, I just planted a tree in my yard yesterday!

Maples, at the nursery, beginning to turn.

Unlike the box stores and many other nurseries, we pride ourselves in carrying a good selection of quality stock throughout the fall. In fact, we order plants (from trees to perennials) all the way through September. This gives our customers the option of avoiding the spring and summer rush, and focusing on garden projects in the fall. Any plants we don’t sell we take care of and sell the following year. This also translates to a good selection in early spring before some of our new shipments arrive!

Heptacodium minicoides ® Temple of Bloom ©2020 Proven Winners

With very few exceptions, we still have the selection of trees we did in the spring and summer. We still have oaks and maples, redbuds and dogwoods, black gum and fir, and so on. With over 1,000 trees still for sale, I’d wager to say we have one that’s a fit for you! Same goes for shrubs and other plants.

How to Plant a Tree!

I’d like to talk a little about tree planting. Tree planting isn’t rocket science…but there are wrong and incomplete ways of doing it. (I don’t have to go out on a “limb” to say it!). While I am writing specifically about trees, the same principles apply to all other plants – shrubs, perennials, etc.


As you transport trees, move them by the pot or the rootball. Avoid pulling or dragging them by the trunk, especially on ball-and-burlaped (B&B) trees. If you have a B&B tree, do not push it out of the vehicle onto the ground. Hard impact can damage the root system inside the ball, especially on more temperamental trees like evergreens.

If the rootball is small enough, you can guide it into a wheelbarrow. If it’s larger, gently slide it down a board onto the ground. Once on the ground, you can use a dolly or roll the rootball itself to the site where it will be planted. I find that most rootballs can be rolled surprisingly easily. For trees with wide canopies that might fracture if you roll it, you can shimmy it instead by pulling it from side to side by the ropes or cage.

A sugar maple (Acer saccharum) at the nursery, going into fall color.

The Hole

Dig the hole twice as wide but no deeper. Trees root out far quicker than they root down, especially when young, so digging deeper is unnecessary. Plus a heavy B&B tree might sink and settle if you dig too deep.

Rootball on Container Trees

  1. Pull the rootball out of the pot.
  2. Locate the root flare. The root flare is where the trunk “flares out” and meets the largest roots. You want the flare to be exposed and above ground. Sometimes it can be slightly buried in a nursery pot so you may have to dig down an inch or two till you locate it. You may have to shave away some small feeder roots.
  3. If you see any roots girdling roots near the trunk, you’ll want to cut those and remove what you can at the soil line. Don’t worry about harming the tree. Containerized trees have a lot of roots so it won’t miss a few.
  4. With a garden claw digger or trowel, loosen the sides of the rootball. Do a vigorous job in loosening the rootball (don’t be too timid!). This well help your tree get out of it’s “pot mentality” and root out into your surrounding soil better.
  5. The above steps are important as the key to a healthy tree is a healthy, well-structured root system.
  6. Place the containerized tree in the hole. If desired, you can dust the rootball with an inoculant of beneficial microbes, such as Espoma’s BioTone. Our tree planters typically use this when they plant trees for our customers.

Rootball on Ball and Burlaped (B&B) Trees

  1. Roll the rootball gently into the hole. Once it’s rotated and settled the way you want, throw in a little soil at the bottom so the tree stays stands straight.
  2. Cut the top half of the burlap off and remove *all* of the rope and/or twine. If it’s a caged B&B tree, I like to take wire cutters and cut the top half of the cage off. The fabric and metal cage do break down over time, so it’s “okay” to leave them on, but they do take longer to break down underground.
  3. Once the burlap and ropes are off, you should be able to see the root flare. If not, dig down a little with a trowel. Like on a containerized tree, you want to see trunk flare out and for it to be above ground. Cut out any girdling roots around the trunk and root flare.
  4. Lightly rough up the sides of the rootball with a trowel or garden claw digger.
  5. The above steps are important as the key to a healthy tree is a healthy, well-structured root system.
  6. If desired, you can dust the rootball with an inoculant of beneficial microbes, such as Espoma’s BioTone. Our tree planters typically use this when they plant trees for our customers.

A containerized rootball before loosening. You want to loosen this so it no longer resembles the shape of the pot.

A containerized rootball after loosening. This will help your tree root out better into your surrounding soil and get established quicker.

This girdling root needs pruned out. Just cut it off at the soil line.

This weeping European Hornbeam in Plumline employee Aaron’s garden is planted correctly. You can see the root flare and that the mulch is not up against the tree.

The root flare on this horsechestnut looks excellent. Notice how you can see the trunk flare out and meet the root zone. You want this above ground. The roots are also facing away from the tree and none are girdling.












Plumline employee and tree planter Matt backfills the hole where a concolor fir (Abies concolor) is being planted.


Once your tree is set, you can begin backfilling. If you’re soil is good, you do not need any soil amendment and you can backfill entirely with your native soil. If the soil is a compacted (usually from a high percentage of clay), you can mix in an amendment. We recommend using no more than 1/3 of amendment in the backfill. You can use mushroom compost on all non-evergreens, or our top selling product “Daddy Pete’s Lawn & Garden Mix” for anything. The latter is a mix of manure, pine fines, and gypsum. You can also top dress with an amendment. Keep in mind that you don’t want to coddle your tree; you want it to adapt to your native soil because this is where it’s going to live – even if the soil is a little rough!

The bucket on the left is dirt mixed with mushroom compost. The bucket on the right is the same but mixed with sand. See which one drains better?

Our top selling amendment for heavy clay soils: Daddy Pete’s Lawn & Garden Soil.

Many customers ask about peat moss and sand. I would avoid using them. High amounts of sand may help loosen already loose soils, but will actually make compacted soils worse. Clay and sand blend together almost like concrete! Don’t use peat moss either. Peat moss helps lower the pH of soils and aids in water retention, both of which are unnecessary in western PA soils. Peat moss is also an unsustainable and environmentally destructive product (despite the claims of contrarians). For more on that, go here. https://www.indefenseofplants.com/blog/2015/5/4/the-truth-about-peat

If you’re soil is compacted, the best things you can do is simply add compost. Each spring or fall, you can can add some compost around the root zone of the tree and work it in into the top couple inches of soil. If you do this over time, the organic matter will continue to work itself deeper into the soil and it will become richer and looser over time.

With that said, if your soil has a high percentage of clay, you should select trees and other plants that are tolerant of clay soils, such as Sweetbay magnolia, native oaks, and hawthorns. You can help your soil, but don’t soil yourself by fighting it!

This tree, located in front of a local box store, is buried in too much mulch. You should be able to see the base of the trunk flare out.

Final Steps!

Many nursery trees come attached to a bamboo stake with plastic green ties. Unless the the tree has a wide floppy canopy and a very thin trunk, this should be removed upon planting. This is a training stake and is usually past its usefulness. These green ties will eventually cut into the trunk so at the very least, remove it within the first year of planting.

Unless your site is terribly windy, and your containerized tree has a very large canopy, it probably doesn’t need staked. Wind resistance helps trees root out better so staking can even be counterproductive. If you decide to stake your tree, only do it for the first year. Give the tree a little play so the roots can still react accordingly. Be sure to use ties that wont cut into the trunk.

Remove all tags and ribbons. They look tacky!

You may use a light dusting of mulch around the tree but be sure none of it touches the trunk. Piling mulch around the trunk can lead the tree into rooting around the trunk and girdling itself. It can also leaded to wounds and diseases.

If you bear these in mind, your tree will say “Thank you very mulch!”

Subsequent Care

Keep the soil moist but well drained. To encourage deep root growth, it’s best to water infrequently but for long periods.

Deer rut damage on a cherry.

Employee Aaron puts tree guards on the nursery stock.

Consider letting the hose trickle on the tree for an hour or so a few times a week during the summer, and a couple times a week during spring and fall. That’s better than watering for short periods on a frequent basis. Slow, long, and deep watering encourages much better root growth.

A happy, mature Concolor fir (Abies concolor) on a Pittsburgh resident’s property. I love seeing a healthy, mature specimen in a residential landscape. Make this your goal!

Fertilizer is unnecessary the first year (as we fertilize them here) but you’re still welcome to use a low dose organic product such as Espoma products Tree Tone, Plant Tone, and Holly Tone. Wait a few weeks after planting and follow the directions when applying. You can use these products in subsequent years or a compost product such as mushroom compost or a manure.

If you live in a neighborhood that is frequently visited by deer, protect the tree with a trunk protector during rut season which usually runs September through December. Or you can leave it on till spring as this will help reduce the risk of sunscald in exposed areas. Do this every fall/winter until the trunk is more than 5″ in diameter. Bucks prefer young, smooth trees to rub on.

Happy Plantings!

It saddens me to see how often trees are prematurely removed from homeowner and commercial landscapes. Trees are awesome – so research, plan, and plant accordingly so you’re tree can be a beautiful asset to your landscape. A few more minutes of your time and attention could save you a lot of grief in the long run. And believe me, a healthy, well-sited, established tree is a low maintenance tree. And who doesn’t like low maintenance?

We hope you’ll come out and visit us before the growing season ends (mid-November)! Happy plantings!


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