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Best planting technique: 7 important steps

Prevent transplantation shock

with this planting technique

 

After referencing numerous sources and planting hundreds of fruit trees, I have developed an extremely effective method of planting fruit trees.  This method takes a little bit of extra effort, but the incidence of transplantation shock has been reduced to zero.  The extra time investment you take here will more than pay for itself in healthy (living) plants.

 

Background:

  • I strongly believe, that root damage in transportation and planting is the major cause of transplantation shock.
  • The reason is simple; without an adequate root volume, a tree cannot get the moisture it needs and a biological downward spiral will begin.  Preventing root damage is a major goal with this planting technique.
  • Protecting the roots starts with transportation from the nursery to your home.  Be gentle when putting the tree in your car and make sure it is secure so it does not rapidly shift or fall.
  • The hotter it is the more the tree will be relying on its intact roots to keep the rest of the tree hydrated. A hot day will compromise an already stressed tree.  Plant on cool overcast day if possible.  The morning or evening would be better than a hot dry midsummer day.

 

STEP 1. Dig a hole:

  • Dig a hole that is at least 2x the size of the pot the tree came in.  However, I know this is a challenge in Southern California where the ground is often about as hard as cement.
  • However, for those of you who are patient, there is a way of making the digging easier.

(An easier way to dig a hole): 

        • Dig a shallow hole and create a brim with the excavated soil.  Then fill the shallow hole with water.  Wait till the water soaks in and fill with water again.  Then wait till the next day.  When you come back you will find that the moistened soil is much much easier to dig through.  Of course you can also dig in the rainy season when the soil is naturally moist and softer.
        • If you are planning to dig multiple holes, you might want to consider investing in an inexpensive electric jackhammer.  I got one on Amazon fairly cheap.  There are much nicer-more expensive ones for sale on Amazon (and everywhere else), however, for the really cheep price, I took the chance with the type of jackhammer in this link.
Best planting technique: step 1

Step 1: Battle the ground to dig a hole

 

Drainage is important: 

        • Almost all fruit trees will die if they are sitting in standing water for any length of time.
        • Therefore you need to make sure the hole you dug will drain.
        • To do this, fill the final hole you created with water.  Wait again.  If there is still water in the hole after 24 hrs, then you need to find another spot or find a way to make that area drain.

 

STEP 2. Put in a Gopher Cage:

Easy to make gopher cage

Step 2: Gopher cage in hole

 

STEP 3. Mix up the soil and organically augment your planting mix:

        Soil background:

          • I have read and heard from ‘others’ that you should and can just plant a tree directly into the ground without adding any organic material and it will be just fine.  I have tried this technique in the beginning of my planting career and it does not work.  Those trees have struggled and have been prone to disease.  Therefore, please augment the soil.  This will support a healthy root environment and nourish your tree for years to come.  In doing so, properly augmenting the soil will reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides.  In addition it will help retain moisture and therefore reduce your water bill.

        Soil choices:

          • There are a lot of soil conditioners, mulches, composts, etc out there to choose from.  I have been using Kellogg’s growmulch but there are many other options that are probably just as good.  Be careful if you use free locally composted material. Some of the plants used for the free compost may have been inoculated with unwanted synthetic chemicals.  Alternatively, the composted material may have natural growth inhibiting chemicals made by other plants.  That’s why I go with store bought bagged soil.
          • However, be warned, many of these bagged organic soil mixtures smell fairly… uhh… shall we say… organic.  In addition, some of that organic-stink is really hard to get off your hands.  Therefore, if you are planning to go out in public at any time after planting your tree, you might want to consider wearing good thick gardening gloves and/or hospital exam gloves when you handle the soil.  For potential allergy reasons, I suggest the non latex-powder free gloves.
            • One of my friends has told me that he uses toothpaste to get the organic soil smell off his hands.  I have yet to try that trick.
            • Almost all fruit trees do better with added organic material in the soil.  However, different trees may like/need different things.  Therefore, the optimal soil mix you use may depend somewhat on what you are planting. For example, tropical and subtropical trees tend to like more acidic soil and therefore, for them I tend to add peat moss to the rest of the soil mix.  Peat moss also helps retain moisture which is good for most tropical’s/sub-tropical’s but it is not necessarily good for all trees.  For example, peat moss is def not recommended for cactus, euphorbia, lavender or any other plant that has evolved in a naturally dry environment.

        My usual soil mix:

            • In general, I have been using more organic material in my soil mix than what is recommended on the bag.  This has been a gradual shift for me.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I have found that the more organic material I use in the planting mix the better the trees do.  There are some concerns that a very rich soil mixture will cause rank growth or burn the roots.  However, I am currently using about a 40% native soil and 60% bagged soil mixture (such as Kellogg’s grow mulch) and my results have been extremely good without any noticeable negative side effects.  The poor native soil around here just seems to lock-up nutrients thrown at it until it hits a saturation point when you use a lot of organic material. If you have a yard with at least some native top soil then you may not need to add in as much organic material to the mix.
Mixing grow mulch

Step 3: Mix planting soil/mulch with native soil

6/26/16 Update:

Scott, a contributing reader, recently mentioned (in the comments section) that there are some additional considerations to keep in mind when using a lot of organic material in the mix. Namely, the organic material will break down over time and this may cause the soil to settle in.   By that rationale, over time, the plant may sink deeper than you intended.  Planting so the top of the root-ball is a little higher will give you some room to for the possibility of future settling.

Good point Scott. I have planted hundreds trees in Southern California and a small amount of settling is not uncommon.  I have only occasionally seen more than a few inches of settling.  I think that I dont see significant settling a lot for two reasons:

1. The soil around here is intrinsically very-very dense to begin with. Therefore, even after adding organic material, it is still fairly dense.  However, if you have loose light soil in your yard to begin with, then that’s a different story.

2. When strong roots grow outward they get locked into the adjacent native soil & gopher cage. In doing so, the root mesh-work holds things in place before any decomposition of the organic components leads to significant volume/height loss.  Overtime, bugs, good-fungi and worms keep churning the carbon cycle to keep things lively in there.

However, to be safe, another option to help prevent this settling issue is to be specific about where you back-fill different types of soil into the hole. Specifically, putting only native soil immediately under the tree root-ball may prevent the height loss issue as well.  Everything else around the hole, including deeper sections in the hole off-to the side, can be filled with the richer-organic soil mixture.

 

STEP 4. Back fill the hole and position the tree:

      Fill in around the cage: 

            • Put in the gopher cage and add just enough soil to cover the bottom of the cage.  Adding in native soil immediately under the root-ball may help to prevent future settling.
            • Spray with some water to make sure the soil gets in below the mesh of the gopher cage.  This will help get out trapped air pockets.
Use a garden hose to remove air pockets and mix the soil

Step 4: Getting out the air pockets below the cage

      Fill the hole some more:

            • Measure the height of the soil in the potted tree.  Continue to fill the hole you created with soil so that it the hole depth becomes about the same as the height of soil of the plant in the container.  Your end goal is to have the trees crown (where the roots and trunk meet) to be just above the level of the final soil line. Since things tend to settle a little bit, it is better to err on the side of a little higher (a few inches is about as far as I go).
            • If the crown of the tree is buried, it can get ‘crown rot’ that often kills a tree.

Position the tree in the hole while still in the pot:

            • Place the potted tree into the hole you created to make sure everything looks good.  Doing this while the plant is still in the pot will protect the roots from movement damage as you modify the height and positioning of the tree by adjusting the amount of soil in the hole.  Having the soil level of the container a little higher than the soil around the hole is ideal (few inches).
Adjust while in pot

Step 4 (cont): Position tree while still in the pot to protect roots

 

STEP 4 1/2. Add some beneficial fungus (optional):

            • I usually put some mycorrhizal fungi  in the bottom of the hole and on the exposed roots.
            • What is this fungi you ask?
              • This is a specific class of fungi that is very beneficial to plants.  Your plant and this fungi partner in a “symbiotic relationship” (the fungi and your plant benefit each other).
              • The fungi basically extend the reach and efficiency of the plants roots.
              • The thin fungal projections (hyphae) that partner with the plant roots increases the surface area that is available for nutrient and water absorption, therefore maximizing the plants access to essential compounds, elements and moisture.  In the process, mycorrhiza helps with drought resistance.  Mycorrhizae also offer the host plant increased protection against certain pathogens.  In return, the plant supplies the fungus with carbohydrates for use as energy.
            • I use to get my mycorrhizal fungi at a local farmers market, but that seller has moved.  However, I see that there are also a few selling mycorrhizal fungi on Amazon.com.

STEP 5. Final tree placement:

        Cut out the bottom of the pot:

                • Once everything looks good, gently place the tree and pot on its side.  Use a knife or sharp razor blade and cut out the bottom of the plastic pot. Yes, you will sacrifice the pot; but that is better than having to buy another plant if it dies of shock.
                • Make sure you don’t have a lip of plastic at the bottom that will later catch.
                • Untangle any bound-up roots.
Only cut the bottom of the pot

Step 5: Cut the bottom of the pot off

      Remove the pot while the tree is in the hole:

                • Gently place the tree with the bottomless pot back into the hole.
                • Once the tree is safely back in the hole make your final adjustments.
                • When everything is perfect, cut the side of the remaining plastic pot from top to bottom.
                • (you may want to wear gloves so not to cut yourself on the plastic, the knife or the gopher cage).
now cut the side of the pot.

Step 5 (cont): Cut the side of the pot

        Remove the pot:

                • Peal off the remaining plastic pot and the tree should be sitting there perfectly where you wanted it without any stress to the roots.
                • If the tree is root-bound then gently pull the roots out of their tangled mess.
remove the plastic pot

Step 5 (cont): remove the pot.

 

 STEP 6. Fill the rest of the hole with soil:

      Add some soil and water again:

                • Add some soil around the root ball, and spray in water to cover the soil by about an inch.  This helps to get out any air pockets and is also an efficient way to soak the tree and surrounding soil.
                • Allow the water to soak in.  This is also a good time to add more micorriza to the exposed wet roots.
Step 5: Add more soil and fill with water

Step 6: Add more soil and fill with water

        Finish filling the hole:

                • After the water has soaked in, fill the rest of the hole with the soil mix you created.  Make a brim of soil to create a basin for water. Water again.
Step 6 (cont): Finish filling with soil.

Step 6 (cont): Finish filling with soil.

 

STEP 7. Finishing touches:

              • Lay down your irrigation line and cover with mulch bark to help reduce evaporation.
Cover with mulch bark

Cover with mulch bark (your done!)

 

And one more thing:

  • This is not really a planting step, but it is vary important…. and perhaps a bit emotionally painful.
  • You need to remove all the fruit and flowers from your new plant.
  • Those nice things just take energy away from the tree becoming established and healthy.

Close initial care:

A new tree will need extra watering as it is becoming established.  This is especially true if you planted your tree in the summer. Deep watering every 2 to 3 days in the summer is a good start for newly planted trees.  Watch the leaves for signs of water stress and feel the soil to adjust your watering as needed.  If you are not sure, err on the side of over watering.

 

About Thomas Osborne, MD

Dr. Osborne is a Harvard trained Radiologist and Neuroradiologist who loves to share his insight about medicine and gardening.

55 comments

  1. Your instruction is the best. You share and hope all who read your articles will be successful.

    Thank you very much. I love your article on Dragon fruit as well.

  2. For container plants, the best one for AZ is 15% Perlite, 15% Fine Canadian Peat Moss or similar, 50% Aged Pine Bark and 20% Coconut Coir. This is built for the best aeration and water drainage without using sand. I’m not sure about CA, but I assume you would water less.

    In your prep, do you use gypsum? For fertilizer do you use fish emulsion, kelp emulsion and ammonium sulfate?

    • Thomas Osborne, MD

      Thanks Nate.
      My soil mix is a bit dependent on the particular plant.
      For example, I wouldn’t use peat moss for succulents, or rosemary.
      But I would use it in the mix for tropical plants.

      For fertilizer… again this is a bit dependent on the particular plant.
      I try to go organic as much as I can. However, I have found that I just cant keep up with the nitrogen-and other needs of some of my plants using organic alone.
      For example, I usually supplement my citrus with triple 15. But I then give them a lot of other organic options throughout the year as well (worm castings, mushroom compost, chicken manure, grow mulch, etc)

  3. Very nice work on this guide, Tom. Many years ago when I was in college I worked with a neighbor who was a retired Botany Professor from Eastern Europe. Peter and I planted several fruit trees at a few different locations together. Basically, I was the “muscle” and dug the holes, sifted the soil and gro-mulch together etc. With all of his knowledge, citrus was new to Peter as it was too cold in his native country to grow it. He taught me to dig the holes as deep as possible for each tree. More than twice the size of the container, if possible. Have heard others warn against digging too deep a hole for various reasons.
    After reading your guide, I would strongly doubt if any of the holes I dug would completely drain of being filled with water in 24 hours or less. Not with the hard adobe soil we have here in So. Cali. Perhaps, this is why Peter wanted me to dig the holes so deep.
    He had 22 standard size trees on a 8000 square foot lot not including a small hillside area that we never got around to planting.

    • Thomas Osborne, MD

      Thanks Paul.

      Sounds like a great experience to learn from your retired botany professor friend.

      As you mentioned, drainage around here is a big deal.
      A big hole, with rich-organic material mixed in, also sets the stage for a healthy-diverse soil environment full of good microorganisms.

      Thanks,
      Tom

  4. I have a fruit, how can I propagate??

    • Thomas Osborne, MD

      Hi Kathy
      Thanks for the question…
      This is a fun question that many ask. The answer depends on the type of fruit you have.
      Please inform and perhaps we can get you some helpful advice.
      Best,
      Tom

  5. Hello There!

    Love your site soooo helpful. My question: Can I start a Mullberry tree in a large container like a 1/2 barrel? I live in a rental house and am not sure how long I am to satay here? Thank you in advance for your response!

    • Thomas Osborne, MD

      Hi Elissa
      Thank you for the great feedback.
      I have not tried growing a mulberry tree in a large container.
      However, a 1/2 barrel is a great size and I would think that it would be a great size to start a tree.
      Best,
      Tom

  6. I am planting a cutting into soil to be grown in Canada in my greenhouse all year round. Are there any ideas or advice you can give for growing in a pot in a greenhouse in Canada?

    Thomas anything to add?

  7. Love you your articles, thank you for the information. My question is I’m moving to Utah and have a Florida Prince Peach tree and I was planning on putting it it in the ground there do you think it will adapt to the winter’s out there should I cover it during or will that not help at all???

    • Thomas Osborne, MD

      Hi Traci
      Thanks for the great feedback.

      The major concern, from a warm climate perspective, is if the temp gets enough to trigger the loss of leaves in the winter.
      This chill period is very low for the Florida Prince Peach and is one of the great-unique things about the tree.
      However, I have not seen any objective research on the other side of the equation… Namely, wow much cold is too much for this tree.

      None the less, I have seen unsubstantiated reports that this tree will grow in zones 7-10 which would include parts of Southern Utah. I suspect that the tree could take a bit more cold than that, but that is just speculation. One option is to talk to a local grower/nursery or see what others are growing in your area. If not the Prince peach then there will be many other peaches that should work.

      Below is a list of some other great options for warm climate like Southern California.
      Search peach Critical Winter Care For Your Peaches2016/01/18 Best Peaches to Grow in Southern California

      If you want to know your growing zone, I wrote a quick article about it and the link is below.
      Climate Zones: What can I grow in my yard?

      Thanks!
      Tom

      • Thank you for replying I’ve read the relating information you mentioned and I am flying to utah this weekend I’ll ask a local nursery see what they say. Have a great weekend!

  8. What is the 60% bagged soil mix you use? What are the bulk ingredients?
    My main question, is how much organic matter fraction?
    So, you stated 40% native dirt/soil, and 60% of that additional material.

    I’m curious how much loss of soil volume occurs due to the amount of organic matter in your mix.

    But, you say things have worked out great.

    I’d expect planting with a bit more elevated rise, along with some organic matter(maybe 1/4 to 1/3) in more compacted soils would work great.

    Generally I find if the soil is fairly diggable, including fruit trees, if planed with appropriate soil profile, watered appropriately, they’ll do fine, they’ll do well, they’ll do great. And mulching usually being helpful/necessary as well.

    I appreciate your open forum, keep up the great work.

    • Thomas Osborne, MD

      Hey Scott
      Thanks for your note.

      When I say 40/60… I mean that I use 60% grow mulch and 40% native soil (which for me is a mix of decomposed granite and hard clay). This native soil I have is very dense stuff.
      I added some comments to the article to clarify. Thanks.

      There are clearly all kinds of soil types in any area. However, I live on a hill side and it seems that the only soil that is left after many years of erosion is the hardest toughest stuff possible. If it wasent that hard then it would be washed away. I did landscaping in college to help pay the bills. We were all over southern California digging holes and I have seen a lot of hard poor soils in the area. Occasionally, in a valley or in a well cultivated area, the soil is intrinsically richer and looser. They are the lucky ones for planting.

      I appreciate your points about plants settling and I referenced your comments in the body of the article.

      Thanks!
      Tom

      • Hi Tom,
        I was just looking at this again, I wasn’t referring to any settling by the plant, i.e. rootball settling, but rather just the decomposition of the organic matter around the rootball, which would probably make for a sinking of the soil around the rootball, if the surrounding soil mix is 60% organic matter, if organic is entirely or mostly what ‘grow mulch’ is.
        And again, just a very well pulverized soil, with the hole dug about the same depth as rootball, and the hole dug two or more times wider than the rootball, and even additional pulverizing/digging up of the soil in the first several inches beyond the main hole, out a foot more or so, and with appropriate planting profile, slightly or more elevated, depending on the circumstantial specifics, and then with mulch on the surface to the trunk, modestly,…that should allow most any typical woody fruit tree or vine, which is adapted to general soils, which most are, to do well, or well enough for good production and growth.
        So again, just the native suitably pulverized/dug up soil, with suitable somewhat/slightly elevated rootball planting profile, mulch, and watering, – that usually works well for most fruit trees/vines with most soils in the San Diego region.

        Although, I’m not addressing gopher inhibition here,… but that’s only an issue in ‘some’ locations, – not typically an issue, at least for the vast majority of residential and even many non-residential plantings of fruit trees/vines. Figured I’d share my observations. But, we all have our own.
        Best Regards,
        Scott

        • Thomas Osborne, MD

          Hey Scott
          Thanks for your insight.

          I agree, there is likely some settling of the plant due to decomposition of the added organic material. I have seen this happen, but it is surprisingly small when it does.

          Perhaps the limited amt of settling I see is because the roots anchor-in before the organic material settles down. That being said, you might expect some air-gaps in there if it was the case and I dont notice any when I dig up and move plants years later. Perhaps the worms/bugs keep tilling the soil around enough to fill up any air-gape/holes.

          Thanks,
          Tom

  9. Best and most impressive methodical information. Thanks very much

  10. Dear Thomas,
    you fill the hole with the mixed soil in 3 steps.
    did you use same soil(40% soil and 60% growing mulch) in these 3 steps?
    thanks for your useful articles

  11. ANIL KUMPUAR GANUPU

    I am anil i am going to plant 188 schools in fruit garden. I need a help what are the steps I have taken

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