Thursday, April 14, 2011

How to plant a plant

This is another installment of the “how to” series, which after reviewing some of the web statistics from my site are far and away the most popular.

This one sounds pretty basic and simple for a gardening blog, and at the risk of boring or offending some readers, I do think it is really important, not just knowing how to plant a plant, but why certain steps are done. This is intended for Montana native plants (planted in Montana), but for the most part is applicable to most others (expect things like orchids, hemi- parasites and saprophytes, I guess- you are on your own there).
  • Locate utilities (plan to do this if you are going to dig deeper than a foot), this is typically a free and fast service
  • Determine location- spend a day or so with the plant where you think you’d like it (this is especially important if you are planting a tree or something that will get really large), a small forb can be relocated, but you don’t’ want to plant a tree I the wrong spot.  On the other hand, nothing is permanent.
  • Dig a hole that is at least twice as wide as the container the plant is in and deeper than the container height
  • Set plant in hole- check the location of the plant and check hole dimensions.  In the photo below, the hole is not wide enough.
  • Determine final height- This is important, you want the plant to set proud, or higher than the surrounding surface- you want to have a “crowned” effect.   The old adage is “plant it high, it won’t die.  Plant it low, it won’t grow.”  Words to live by. Add loose soil to bring plant up to this height.  
  • The reason for digging the hole deeper than you need to is so you can loosen the soil below the plant and encourage quick root growth and plant establishment.  There are some exceptions to this, though, and some plants that root from the stem (like tomatoes and really water loving plants, I'm sure there are some others, but none really come to mind).
  • Remove the plant and fill the hole with water.  Wait for the water to drain from the hole (as an aside, if you’ve ever wondered if you have well-drained soil or poorly-drained soil, you’ll find out now).
  • Remove the plant from the container (carefully).  If the plant is root bound (hopefully it is- this is a good sign of the plant being ready to plant), break up the roots.  This is important and don’t be gentle or shy.  You want to loosen the roots and break up the tendency to grow in the previous container.  You want the plant to spread its roots and exploit resources.  If the roots stay bound they will quickly deplete the nutrients form the soil.  Also, by breaking the roots, the plants will release a hormone that prompts root growth.  Don’t however, break any taproots, or major roots- you are just trying to break the roots free of the container shape.  The only exception to this is if you are planting fairly mature annuals or if you intend to do a lot of feeding or something.  I don’t know why, but the technique of not breaking the root ball up seems to be all the rage now, but I don’t agree with it, nor do I have any experiences to suggest you should not do it.
  • Depending on how tightly bound the roots are, you may need a soil knife (I am very partial to the A.M. Leonard Soil knife it is one of my favorite tools), or even a pruning saw will work great.
  • OK, now that you have abused the plant (kidding, you did the right thing, really) set it in the hole.  Since this is a native plant, you don’t need any fertilizer, soil amendment, compost or anything!  In fact adding too much compost or nutrients can be deleterious to the plant- it can lead to rapid leaf and stem growth, poor or shallow root development, and a faster life-cycle- that is, they might flower their heads off the first year and die.  In ecology it is like switching from r selected (species whose traits are selected to emphasize high growth rate and short life span) to K selected (slower growth, more investment in offspring, longer lived) traits.  Most of our native plans are water limited and slow growing (long-lived).  They have adaptations to deal with seasonally scarce nutrients and water sources.  Don’t over water or feed our plants.  
  • The only exception to this is if the plant is damaged or severely stressed prior to planting, in that case you may have to add some nutrients to correct a problem, but not to promote excessive growth.
  • Stand back and see if the plant is where you want it, and the best "face" is forward, make any adjustments, and add some more water and let it drain.  This might dislodge soil form the roots, but ultimately it will help remove any air pockets (aka, root killers).  Add soil, and when you get it about half way full, water again and let it drain- this step should get rid of any air spaces.  Finish filling the hole, and crowning the top.  Water again until it is saturated. 
  • Mulch.  Mulch is really important, but don’t add too much around the base- you don’t want to end up planting to plant too low (see above and read adage), or promoting secondary root growth around the base.

  • Step back and admire your work.  Plan on watering every other day or every third day for a month, and then weekly thereafter (depending on weather, precipitation, plant species, etc...) through the first growing season.  As always, water deeply and infrequently to promote deep roots.  


  1. Great tips to plant a new plant. If we grow lots of plant will produce more oxygen around us. During these days all people are destructing the trees but growing a new plant is very difficult.

  2. Hi there,

    I got a great haul from Lawyer's Nursery in Plains, Montana this Memorial Day, many selections based on recommendations for native plants, such as Mock Orange, Elderberry, Witch Hazel and so forth. Any additional suggestions for planting bareroot plants in Montana? These plants were planted 1 and 2 weekends ago, and are budding and flourishing already. I do know the basics but if you have some watering suggestions that would be great. And, even though you say this is a very basic entry, I find it most helpful and directive...

    Our blessing this spring is that just after I planted it has been raining every day or two. I do have a drip irrigation system in, which saves water and time, for later in the season. Songbird garden continues to grow apace, there are many attractive species for the birds, and the birds are appearing fast and furious!!

  3. Great post, Thanks for sharing. I would like to visit regular here

  4. even I have a big garden taken care by my sister and myself... great info indeed...