If you've purchased bare root plants in spring, we recommend potting them up and growing them out until fall.
First, choose a pot that accommodates the root system of your plant with room for growth. If your plant's roots are longer than the pot, trim them so there are at least 1-2 inches of space below them in the bottom of the pot. Trees with a long tap root should be potted into a deeper pot that allows space for it to properly develop. These include oaks, hickories, buckeyes, persimmon and pawpaw.
Add soil to the pot so it's about 1/3 full, then tip the pot on its side and smooth the soil up along one side. Lay the plant against the soil with the roots touching the bottom of the pot. Add soil, and gently pull the plant upward until it is the desired depth. This helps straighten the roots so they're reaching toward the bottom of the pot. Make sure your shrub or tree is planted at the same depth it was when it was grown out. Planting too deeply will compromise the health of your plant.
While firmly holding your plant just above the soil line, gently lift and tap the pot on a solid surface 1-2 times to help the soil settle and ensure there are no air pockets. Add more soil if needed to ensure the root system stays covered, including any small hair roots. Top the soil with a generous handful of wood chips or mulch to help the soil maintain an even moisture level. A sprinkle of corn gluten can be added as a pre-emergent to control weeds.
An ideal place to keep newly potted trees and shrubs until time for potting out is in partial shade near a watering hose, where you're likely to notice when they need water or other attention. If deer are a problem in your area, you'll need to protect them as deer will nip off all the buds, altering the shape of your plant, and slowing its growth.
Planting out: properly siting your new plants:
Most native plants are tolerant of sun/shade exposure and soil moisture outside their preferences, once established. If a plant is sited in its preferred conditions, it will grow to the high side of its growth range. If sited in drier or moister soil or in more sun than is ideal, it will tend to grow toward the lower end of its growth range. If in less sun, it can become leggy. There are also very few native plants that can’t tolerate being trimmed to control height. Plants that put down a deep tap root will be difficult to move, so choose those locations thoughtfully.
Lastly, consider planting the way nature does, with shrubs near trees. If you can, pair your trees and bushes when they’re young so the root systems can interlock. Scientists have found plants communicate via their root systems, sharing information through underground fungal networks. In such networks, they can communicate various conditions and send nutrients to a nearby struggling plant. Interlocking root systems also stabilize plants during storms.
Once you've chosen your site, dig out an area that is only slightly wider around than your plant’s pot. If the hole is too wide, your plant won’t have time to root in and anchor itself in before the ground begins freezing and thawing, which can heave your plant out. Digging into a flexible trash can lid allows you to collect the loose, crumbly soil as you excavate. The planting hole should be 1-2 inches deeper than the dirt level in your pot. Add back enough loosened soil to bring your plant up to or just above the same level in the ground as it was in the pot. Don’t bury deeper as it will settle some, and burying too deeply can compromise the health of woody plants. Now fill in the rest of the hole with crumbled dirt, slightly mounded above the natural soil level to allow for some settling to occur. If you wish, you can take the circle of sod you removed and cut or chop it into 3 strips to use upside down (roots up so the grass/weeds don’t regrow) around the edge of the planting hole to create a bowl to help guide rain to the root system and help keep the soil moist. To help hold moisture in the soil, add mulch, wood chips or leaves. Adding a layer of cardboard first will suppress competition around your new plant and help hold moisture in the soil, reducing the need for watering. The cardboard will break down over 4-6 months. Whatever you do, don’t leave the soil bare as weed seeds will quickly germinate and begin competing with your new plant.
Many native plants also serve as food plants for larger wildlife, such as deer, groundhogs and rabbits, and will need protection until they’re well-established (usually 2-4 years for woodies and 1-2 for perennials). We’ve found the best, most economical way to do this is by cutting chicken wire into 24-36 inch sections. We find round steel fence posts work well and are the most economical option. Menards and TSC both carry a 4’ red round steel fence post that is priced around $2, and silver one that is slightly smaller diameter for under $2. The fencing can be woven onto the fence post, eliminating the need for any type of fastener. Just step the fence post into the ground until the anchor is buried. Next weave the fencing onto the post. Lastly, pull the cage closed around your new planting, twisting it together at the top, bottom and in the middle, if needed (often it has “memory” from being in a roll and stays closed on its own). Don’t forget to place a bright colored flag near your new planting if it’s likely to get hit by the lawn mower.
Thank you for planting with purpose!