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Randy ForstExtension Educator - Consumer Horticulture
Phone: (501) 671-2245Email: email@example.com
Developing an entire new landscape, revitalizing an existing landscape or planting
a single tree is an investment in your home and the environment. Investing wisely
increases the return and reduces disappointment. The process of landscaping your home
begins with proper plant selection and understanding your site. Knowing which plants
are best suited to the site is critical to future success. For example, hostas, ferns,
bigleaf hydrangea and most azaleas are better suited to shady locations and will struggle
in full sun.
A common problem in many new landscapes is poorly drained soils. In this case, we
have two choices: either deal with the drainage issue or select plants that tolerate
poorly drained soils. In this situation, knowing that plants such as boxwood, most
evergreen hollies and evergreen azaleas will die in poorly drained sites should prompt
you to avoid these plants. A clear understanding of a plant’s attributes, good and
bad (e.g., plant size, flower fragrance, flowers and fruits, messy fruits, brittle
wood) is needed.
Many new landscapes are over planted because homeowners did not consider the ultimate
size of the plants selected. This leads to dissatisfaction, extra pruning and the
inevitable need to replace or severely prune the plant. Placing a large shade tree
close to the corner of a house or a shrub growing to 12 feet beneath a four-foot window
does not make sense long term. Be sure that the mature plant size will fit the site.
Before purchasing plants or planting them, you need to know several things about the
planting site. Issues such as sun exposure, soil pH, drainage, and location of utilities
need to be considered. Start with the soil. Significant changes to the soil are easy
prior to planting the landscape.
Have your soil tested before planting.
It is easy and will provide useful information that will improve the long-term success
of your landscape. Soil samples can be submitted at your local county Cooperative Extension office. One of the most important pieces of information gained from a soil test is the soil
pH. The soil test report indicates the current soil pH (acid or alkaline) and makes
a recommendation based on the plant type if a change is required. Soil analysis is
even more important if other plants in the landscape are having problems.
Check the soil’s drainage with a simple percolation test. The rate at which water
drains through the soil affects plants’ survival and growth. Poorly drained soil results
in too much water in the root zone and a lack of needed oxygen for healthy roots.
Poorly drained sites can be corrected by proper plant selection, installing a drainage
system, elevating plants, or planting beds above the affected area.
To check for utility obstructions call 811 or visit the AR 811 website.
B&B plants are field-grown trees and shrubs that are dug, the soil ball wrapped in
burlap, and then laced up with string or rope. Many large trees also have a heavy-gauge
wire basket outside the burlap wrapping to help stabilize the soil around the tree
Most large trees are sold with a wire basket outside the burlap wrap. The wire basket
is designed to help in the shipping and handling of these heavy root balls. Wire baskets
degrade slowly in soil. There is a great deal of discussion whether to remove all
or some portion of the wire basket from the root ball. The wire basket does present
a potential risk to the operator of a stump grinder if the stump is ground before
the wire fully degrades.
While most research shows that the wire basket has little effect on trees, most horticulturists
recommend removing at least the top 12 to 18 inches (two or three levels) of wire
from the root ball. This allows the major roots and trunk to grow without possibility
of becoming girdled by the wire. A bolt cutter or heavy wire cutter makes the job
quick and easy. Since most roots grow in the upper 12 inches of soil, few if any roots
would be potentially girdled by the lower portion of the basket.
They are used to keep the field soil in close contact with the roots. Extensive handling
of the root ball or unnecessary removal of these materials may damage the plant’s
It is best to remove them once the root ball has been placed in the planting hole.
This may require that the top of the planting hole be widened to provide access to
remove burlap and wire basket materials. If the tree you purchased has black trunk
wrap, remove that at planting.
A majority of ornamental plants are now sold in containers. The shift to container-produced
plants offered several advantages, including increased availability and improved handling
of plants, and made certain plants available that did not respond well to B&B production.
Rather than growing in field soils, container-grown plants use organic materials such
as compost, peat moss, and bark.
It would seem obvious, but the container must be removed before planting. Removing
plants from containers can be accomplished several ways.
Once the pot has been removed, determine if there are extensive roots circling the
outside of the root ball (see photo).
Plants with extensive or excessive root development at the outer edge are referred
to as root-bound or pot-bound. These circling roots continue to increase in diameter and can eventually strangle
the trunk of a tree.
These roots should be cut with a knife or sharp spade. Make three or four slices an
inch or two deep starting from the top of the root ball to the bottom. For very large
containers (e.g., 15-gallon and larger), pay particular attention to circling roots
in the upper one-half or one-third of the root ball. Recent studies show that slicing
the root ball does appear to enhance the distribution of regenerated roots in the
backfill soil profile. Instead of growing almost exclusively from the bottom of the
root ball, slicing encourages root regeneration along the sliced sectors.
In Arkansas, there are very few woody plants sold bare root. Bare-root plants are
grown in a field, harvested in the fall by removing all of the field soil, graded,
stored in large refrigerated rooms and then shipped in very early spring. The most
common bare-root plants sold in Arkansas are roses and fruit trees. Other bare-root
plants include fruit plants (e.g., strawberries), herbaceous perennials and some groundcovers.
The bare roots are packed with a shipping material such as cellulose strands or peat
moss and then sealed in a plastic tube or bag. Bare-root plants are less expensive,
but much more perishable, than container or B&B plants.
If you have plans to start a tree seedling from that favorite oak, buckeye, or any
other tree with ripening nuts, acorns or fruit, collect these seeds as soon as they ripen and plant them immediately. If left to dry just for a few days, the young embryo inside will no longer have the
ability to germinate.
They can be stored in the refrigerator, in a zip lock with moist sand or peat moss,
until you get a chance to plant them in an outdoor container or in their permanent
spot in the ground.
The value of amending backfill soil when planting trees and shrubs has been debated
for decades. In all but exceptional circumstances where the soil is very poor, extensive
research has shown no need to incorporate any amendments, fertilizers, living organisms,
water-holding gels, humic acids, or organic products into the backfill soil. Simply
use the loosened soil that came out of the planting hole. Loosen and break up large
clods of soil and remove large rocks before Backfilling.
The exception to not adding backfill amendments is where existing soil is so poor
(e.g., mine spoil, small cutout in a concrete sidewalk, parking lot island) that all
soil in the area needs to be replaced with good quality soil. Incorporation of organic
matter when planting in very sandy or gravelly soils will also increase the water-holding
capacity. If results from a soil test indicate the pH needs to be adjusted, incorporating
acidifying (e.g., sulfur) or liming (e.g., limestone) materials in the backfill amendment
at planting is most efficient. If the soil does require a significant change in pH,
follow-up tests in subsequent years are encouraged to monitor any changes.
It is generally not necessary to fertilize established trees and shrubs. If you do, wait to fertilize until late October or early November, or better yet,
apply in late winter (Feb-March). Early fall fertilization may produce a flush of
late, weak growth that will not harden off properly, predisposing new growth to winter
Adding slow-release fertilizer of any type at planting has never been associated with
improved or reduced survival. There are only a few documented cases of increased growth
when fertilizer was applied at or soon after planting. A response to fertilizer at
planting is most likely to occur in sites with poor soils.
Avoid using soluble fertilizers or manures when planting bare-root plants as the salts
can damage the roots. When fertilizer is applied, spread the amount as indicated by
the manufacturer on top of the root ball after planting or on top of the mulch. Plants
may require fertilizer after the establishment year depending on results from a soil
test or based on the planting situation.
Adequate irrigation after planting is the most critical factor in determining success
after planting. Water every plant immediately after planting. Unlike established plants,
research clearly shows that recently transplanted plants establish faster with light,
frequent irrigation. The actual amount of water will need to be adjusted based on
the weekly precipitation. In Arkansas, during the summer months, newly transplanted
plants may require supplemental irrigation several times per week. The actual amount
of water will depend on the type of soil and size of plant. As an example, a 2-inch
tree may require 4 gallons of water distributed evenly over the root ball every irrigation.
Plants can be killed just as easily by over watering as under watering (drought).
When in doubt, feel the soil in the planting area to see if it is moist.
Somehow, the concept of mulching has gotten out of hand. Over the past 30 years there
has been a shift from no mulch to “volcano” mulching. Mulching offers many advantages
including reducing weeds, protecting the trunk from string trimmer damage, conserving
soil moisture and adding organic matter to the soil. Research has shown a dramatic
increase in tree growth when a small area above the root ball is maintained free of
The depth of an organic mulch should not exceed 3 inches after settling. Never pile
mulch against the trunk. Mulch resting on the trunk and applying too thick a layer
may result in increased stem and root diseases, may harbor rodents that feed on the
trunk and may reduce the oxygen required by roots.
A wide variety of products are available for use as landscape mulch. Mulch can be
broadly categorized as either organic or inorganic. Common inorganic mulch materials
include crushed stone, recycled tire chips and gravel. Organic materials include pine
needles, softwood or hardwood tree bark, colored wood chips, composted yard waste,
and cottonseed hulls.
A rare problem with bulk hardwood mulch is something called “sour mulch.” Hardwood
bark that has been held in a large pile is most susceptible to this problem. Anaerobic
conditions in the large pile cause a buildup of gases that can burn foliage on plants
when spread as a mulch layer.
Bark that has a noticeable odor or causes your eyes to burn should not be immediately
spread under plants. Instead, spread the mulch in a non-plant area to ventilate the harmful vapors. For
3 inches of spread mulch, a 2 cubic foot bag will cover 8 square feet, a 3 cubic foot
bag will cover 12 square feet and a 1 cubic yard (27 cubic foot) bulk load will cover
108 square feet.
Do not stake trees unless it is absolutely necessary. Stake only for special situations
such as high-wind areas, very sandy soils, very large or top-heavy trees, or for protection
from vandalism, heavy foot traffic, or equipment damage. Otherwise, allow the tree
to develop naturally, strengthening as it grows.
Hybrid red maples are in full glory during the fall. If you have one of these and
you planted it in the past 3 years, you need to take preventative action this fall
so you will not end up with South West injury.
This trunk injury happens because these young red maple hybrids have very thin bark
which allows the trunk to warm up with the sun striking the trunk on the SW side.
The cambium layer on that side starts to divide and grow on a warm winter day thinking
spring is near, but subsequent low temperatures are sure death to this portion of
You can give your young red maple “fake bark” by wrapping the trunk with a light colored
wrap up to or beyond the first limbs. Tree wraps need to be removed at spring green
up. Repeat this each fall for up to 3 years to protect young trees from being scarred
for life. Once these trees get some age on them, the bark becomes thicker and corky
which will prevent cambium from starting to grow prematurely.
Read more about Sunscald and Southwest Injury.