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Avoid Pitfalls in the Care of Newly Planted Trees and Shrubs

This time of year, people flock to nurseries and garden centers to purchase trees or shrubs that will enhance their landscapes. However, there are certain management measures to keep in mind to ensure plant establishment. Depending on the season, newly planted trees and shrubs need varying degrees of watering, mulching, pruning and trunk staking.

Figure 1: Tree Planting.

Credit: UF/IFAS Communications.

The primary focus in care of your newly planted tree or shrub is root development. It takes several months for roots to establish, and newly planted trees and shrubs do not have a very strong root system. Start by digging the hole in a popcorn bowl shape. Once planted, backfill around the root system, but be careful not to compact the soil. Compaction will hinder root growth. Be sure to keep the topmost area of the root ball exposed, about two inches. A layer of mulch will be applied here.

Frequent watering is much needed, especially if you are planting in the warmer months. Water thoroughly, so that water percolates below the root system. Shallow watering promotes surface root growth, which will make the plant more susceptible to stress during a drought. Concentrate some of the water in a diameter pattern of a few feet from the trunk. This will cause the root system to grow towards the water, and thus better establish the root system and anchor the tree.

Mulch is important in the conservation of soil moisture. Pine needles, bark and wood chips make a great mulch for ornamental shrubs. A two to three inch layer of mulch will usually suffice. It’s important to keep the mulch at least a few inches from the trunk. Mulching too close to the tree trunk can cause trunk rot.

You should always prune the bare roots of trees and shrubs during planting. Exposed roots in containers can be damaged in shipping. Removing some of the roots will also help trigger growth. In addition, pruning some of the top foliage can reduce the amount of water needed for the plant to establish. 

Newly planted trees and shrubs often have a difficult time establishing if the root system cannot be held in place. Strong winds and rain can cause the plant to tip over. Avoid this by staking the plant for temporary support. A good rule of thumb for plant staking is if the trunk diameter measures three inches or less. Tie the stake to the plant at every six inches from the top. However, only tie the trunk at one spot. Don’t tie too tightly, so that the tree has no flexibility. This will stunt the growth of the plant.

Larger trees and shrubs will need diameter staking with wire support. Four stakes evenly spaced at six feet around the trunk is a good arrangement. Each stake can be attached to the tree just above the mid-point using cable or wire. Be sure to cover the wire around the trunk with a short piece of hose to prevent any scarring of the bark. The wire should be snug, but not tight. After one year, the staking can be removed.

Following these tips will help ensure your tree or shrub becomes well established in your landscape. For more information please contact your local county extension office.

Supporting information for this article can be found in the UF/IFAS EDIS publication: “Specification for Planting Trees and Shrubs in the Southeastern U.S.” by Edward F. Gilman:

Supporting information also provided by UF/IFAS Extension Forestry Specialist Dr. Patrick Minogue, of the North Florida Research Education Center in Quincy, Florida.

UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.