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Setting Down New Roots


Whether you're starting out with a empty yard or just looking to add new plants, picking the right trees and shrubs can seem like a daunting task. It doesn't have to be, though. Use these guides to select the best trees and shrubs to plant in your garden.

Before you plant trees and shrubs, make sure you are getting the right ones for your yard. Learn about some of the details you need to know about the plants and your garden to make sure they are a good match.

Hardiness Zones

Your first concern should be the climate you live in. The USDA has devised a map that breaks the country into eleven zones based on the average coolest temperature. Each tree and shrub will have a range of zones that it will flourish in. By picking ones that are suited for your area, you can avoid freezing a tender plant or burning one that prefers cool temperatures.

Plant hardiness zones attempt to match a plant's survival with a set of environmental conditions. These conditions include minimum winter temperature, frost free period, snow cover, and wind speed. zone ratings are only a guide for plant selection. Plant survival is also impacted by bodies of water, wind protection, snow cover and urban heat islands. For this reason there will be always be trees and shrubs that defy the odds and thrive under conditions very different from their zone rating.

Zone 1 Zone 2 Zone 3 Zone 4

Zone Map

Examine Your Soil

The soil texture is important. There are three types – sand, silt, and clay. Water-loving trees and shrubs may have trouble in sand, since water is not retained well. On the other hand, clay can kill trees or shrubs that require excellent drainage. Choose plants that thrive in your type.

Assess the Growing Conditions

Soil isn't the only part you have to worry about. You should assess the environment the tree will be living in. Other factors that may affect your choices for trees and shrubs include:

  • How much light will they get?
  • Is your land flat or hilly?
  • Are there harsh winds?
  • Does the area tend to stay dry, moist, or wet?
  • Is the air and/or soil salty?

Calculate How Much Space You Have

You must consider the space you have available. Be sure to find out the size of trees or shrubs at maturity, instead of basing your purchase on the size of the small ones you see at the nursery.

Find out the shape that a tree or shrub will take – some may be tall and narrow, while others are short and wide. The wider it is, the more shade it will provide. You don't want to block too much light from your other plants.

Don't plant trees or large shrubs too close to your house, or you may find yourself faced with problems like constant pruning, plumbing problems, and structural damage.

Keep Your Design in Mind

What color blossoms or leaves would you like? What size leaf would you like?
There are deciduous trees and shrubs that lose their leaves each fall, but can provide some stunning autumn colors. There are also evergreens which do not lose their leaves and will provide color year-round.

Do you want to attract butterflies, birds, bees, and other wildlife? Are you looking for fruit, shade, a focal point, or something else? These are all some of the concerns when thinking about the aesthetics of a tree or shrub.

Find Out the Growing Habits

Like people, trees and shrubs have good and bad habits. Some habits to consider:

  • Are you willing to rake leaves or pick up fallen fruit?
  • Drops a lot of sap, causing damage to vehicles and buildings?
  • Do the branches break easily?
  • Does it need lots of pruning?
  • Does it produce a lot of suckers that will pop up all over?
  • Will it provide shade or fruit as soon as you would like?
  • Does it have thorns?

Pick a Healthy Specimen

Choosing a healthy plant starts with shopping at reputable nurseries and garden centers. Look for vibrant plants and knowledgeable staff.

Pick trees with evenly spaced branches and a strong, straight trunk. There should only be one central leader for most trees. Shrubs should have a symmetrical form with no gaping spaces. There should be no broken branches on either, which can lead to diseases and insect damage.

Foliage should not be wilting or damaged. The colors should be season-appropriate. The roots should not be pot-bound if in containers. Make sure there is no evidence of diseases or insects.


When to Plant

Deciduous trees can be planted in the spring, as soon as the frost is out of the ground or in the fall, from leaf-fall until freeze-up. Poplars, willows, ash, elms, and birches tend to overwinter better if planted in the spring.

Evergreens can be planted early in the spring until four weeks after deciduous trees have opened their leaves or in the fall, from about the first week of August to the end of October.

Planting Steps

1. Minimize stress to your trees

  • Protect your tree well during transport to avoid bruising the bark and breaking twigs, branches, and buds.
  • Pad the tree trunk and branches with burlap and tie all loose ends with soft rope or twine.
  • Keep the root ball moist and cover exposed bare roots with wet burlap or moss.
  • Cover tree crowns with wet burlap to prevent drying of the tops, especially evergreen.
  • Keep the tree in a shady location until it is time to plant.

2. Prepare the planting spot

  • Remove grass, weeds and ground cover (turf) within a 50-cm radius of the planting hole. These plants compete with the tree for water and nutrients.
  • Dig the hole at least twice as wide as the container or root ball (to accommodate the entire root system), and to the depth of the root ball.
  • Roughen the sides and bottom of the hole to allow root penetration.
  • If good quality soil is not available, break up the turf taken from the top and put it in the hole around the root ball, where it will break down into good rooting soil. Peat or loam, if added, would improve this mixture.
  • Soil in the hole should be moist, not too wet or too dry.
  • A cone-shaped mound of soil at the bottom of the hole is advised for bare-root trees. This will allow the roots to develop downward and outward into the surrounding soil.

3. Prepare your trees for root growth

Bare-root: Loosen the roots with a spray of water and straighten them to prevent doubling-under, crowding, and crossing. Do not expose the roots to direct sunlight or drying winds for more than a minute to avoid damaging the fine root hairs.

Container: Trees should be kept in the container until the last possible moment before planting.

Burlapped: Trees wrapped in burlap should not be soaked prior to planting. There is no need to remove the burlap; just loosen it and it will soon rot away. In cool and dry soil conditions, it may be preferable to remove the burlap rather than leaving it to slowly decompose. Roots circling the outside of the root ball should be clipped, and roots matted on the bottom should be cut off.

4. Plant your tree with care

Bare-root: The root crown is set on the mound and the roots spread over and down the sides of the mound. Refill the hole with good quality soil, gently raising and lowering the tree while filling to eliminate air pockets.

Burlapped / Container: Plant the tree so that the top of the root ball is flush with the top of the hole. Fill the hole in and around the root ball with good quality soil or soil removed from the hole. Tamp the soil around the root ball until the hole is two-thirds full. Fill the remaining space with water to settle the soil and allow the hole to drain. Finish filling the hole with soil and make a ridge of soil around the root ball to direct water towards the roots. Water applied beyond the root ball is not available to the tree until roots grow into the native soil. If soil settles after a few days of watering, additional soil may be required to refill the planting hole.

5. Taking Care of Your Trees

Watering: If your soil allows water to drain easily (i.e., sandy), soak the tree two to four hours twice a week for the first two to three months and weekly thereafter for the first year. The roots must not be allowed to dry out. Peat moss mixed with sandy soils at the time of planting will improve water retention capacity. During the second year, water twice a month during the late spring and summer. If your soil contains a lot of clay and water tends to puddle around the tree, lighter watering is recommended to prevent flooding and to ensure that the roots receive enough oxygen to permit growth. Additional watering of evergreens, prior to freeze-up will minimize the detrimental effects of winter drying.

Fertilizing: Fertilizer helps trees thrive and resist drought, disease, and insects. High phosphorus fertilizers are recommended at planting time to promote root growth. Later on, higher nitrogen fertilizers can be applied for greening and top growth. Slow-acting fertilizer can be applied anytime, but mineral uptake is greatest from May through July. Fast-acting fertilizer is best applied in spring so that the new growth it stimulates has time to mature by winter.

Staking: Staking trees larger than one meter is recommended as it prevents dislodging by wind, people, and animals. Make sure the stake ties do not cause damage to the bark. The stakes should be removed after two or three growing seasons.

Pruning: Prune at planting simply to improve branch spacing and promote a strong structure in the tree. Annual pruning should be started when the trees are young in order to train them to the desired shape.

Reproduced with permission from Canadian Forest Service - Natural Resources Canada. 1992
ISBN 0-622-19536-1


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