Here are answers to some of the most common questions we receive about garden plants. You will find concise information on general gardening techniques as well as plant selection and care. For detailed information on specific plant pests and problems refer to our Common Garden Pests and Problems page.

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Horticulture Questions and Answers

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How do I care for newly planted trees and shrubs?

The first two to three years after planting is a crucial time in the life of trees and shrubs. If you plant and care for trees and shrubs properly, they should establish themselves well within a few years.

Always handle the plants carefully before you plant them. Keep the roots moist and avoid picking the plants up and carrying them by the trunk or the stem. Instead, pick up the pot or the burlapped root ball. Pay close attention to the planting depth by looking at the trunk or stems for the nursery soil line. This line indicates how deep to set the plant. If in doubt, set the plant a bit on the high side because it will settle over time. Cut off any roots which are not directed away from the trunk. Otherwise, these may become girdling roots at the soil surface and present problems later on.

Dig a hole no deeper than the depth of the root ball and back- fill around the tree with the soil from the hole. With a garden fork, loosen the soil in a circle around the root ball to a diameter 5 times the width of the root ball. For example, if the root ball is 1 foot in diameter, loosen the soil at least 2 1/2 feet out each way from the trunk of the tree. This will give you a five foot diameter circle. Do not add soil amendments, peat moss, or other organic matter into the soil which is to be placed back into the planting hole. Instead, shape the soil into a watering basin formed around the tree. Once planted, water the tree well to settle the soil around the roots.

Several weeks later, organic matter such as shredded bark or wood chips should be placed over the planting site soil as a mulch. Apply mulch two to four-inches deep in a three to four foot diameter circle at the plant's base. Keep the mulch at least six inches away from the base of the trunk.

Root systems of established trees and shrubs extend as far or farther than the branches. A layer of mulch will help conserve soil moisture, moderate soil temperatures, prevent weed growth, and keep out competitive grasses. Mulch also reduces soil compaction, eliminates the need to bring lawn mowers and weed whips close to young trunks and stems, and gives your landscape a finished, professional appearance.

When planting hedges or shrubs, such as privet and barberry, cut the plants back to 8-12 inches from the base to stimulate growth if the lower part of the plant is sparse.

The most important step after the initial planting, watering, and mulching, is to water regularly during the first growing season as needed. Remember, when first planted and before the roots move into the surrounding soil, the plant is like a "pot in a container". If at anytime the root ball dries out too much, the plant will be severely injured or even killed. On the other hand, if the soil is kept too wet the roots will rot. Providing the correct balance of water is critical for newly planted as well as established plants. Also note that frequent light waterings are damaging when only the top of the soil is moistened but the water never penetrated down to the root ball. In this case the top of the soil may be wet (and cause a crown rot) but the roots below may be starved of water. Conversely, watering frequently and copiously can result in wet soggy soil and root rot. Plant roots need air so the soil should be allowed to dry some between waterings. Above ground symptoms from either underwatering or overwatering look similar as both result from the plant being starved of water. In the case of overwatering the roots rot and therefore cannot take up water.

The standard guideline for watering plant trees and shrubs is to soak them every week or 10 days during dry weather. Another rule of thumb is to make sure that trees and shrubs receive one inch of water per week, either from rain-fall or by watering. When establishing plants you should strive to reach this goal. When first planted you may need to water two or three times a week until the root begin to move into the surrounding soil, but as soon as possible you should reduce your frequency of watering. Check the soil moisture an inch or two below the soil surface regularly during the season and water only when the soil is beginning to dry out. This may be required fairly often in well- drained soil, especially during hot, dry weather. On the other hand, clay soils often drain poorly and hold water for extended periods of time. Watering once a week may keep clay soils too wet. Since too much soil moisture can do just as much damage to plants as dry soil conditions, it is wise to periodically dig around the plant with a small trowel to determine the soil's moisture level.