Planting Landscape Trees and Shrubs

Think of the tree and/or shrubs you purchased as an investment, or as a new pet.  How well your new nursery plant performs,  depends on the way it is installed,  and how you care for it during the first 2 years.  If you purchased your tree at Decker's Nursery, we're confident that the selection is appropriate for the desired location. If you decide to install the tree yourself, please follow the directions provided below. 

Don't forget the old adage, "Put a $5 tree in a $50 hole, and you'll receive decades of enjoyment". If you follow the directions on after care, which is primarily watering and fertilizing; the tree will become self sufficient after 18-24 months. Trees are remarkable organisms with an uncanny ability to survive, they will replace the roots that were loss during the transplanting.

There is no bad time to plant trees and shrubs, the only limitation is whether you can prepare the hole properly and if you provide the necessary care during the immediate growing season and subsequent summer.

We plant trees and shrubs 12 months out of the year without any concerns, on Long Island. 

Planting Trees and Shrubs

  1. When planting a tree,  locate the root flare.  The root flare is where the roots merge with the trunk and form buttress roots.  The root flare should be above ground and may require you to remove excess soil from top of the root ball or container.  (see diagram).   Measure from  the bottom of the root flare to the bottom of the root ball or container. Dig the hole to this depth and no deeper. 
  2. Dig a hole at least twice and preferably 3 times as wide as the root ball. Do not dig deeper than the measured depth because the tree may settle and end up being planted too deep.  Loosen as much surrounding soil as you can, to provide a conducive environment for the roots to grow into. 
  3. For trees and shrubs in containers, turn the plant on its side and pull the container off of the plant.  Do not pull the plant out of the pot. This will prevent damage to the plant.   If the roots are "root bound" cut the container to remove it. Use a sharp knife to cut vertically around the root mass. This will prevent problems later with girdling roots. Make 6-12 vertical cuts around the root mass. This will not hurt the new plant and prevents problems later with girdling roots.
  4. For trees and shrubs that are Balled and Burlapped; remove the wire cage, if it has one, and leave the burlap in place until the plant has been placed in the hole.  Once in the hole, cut and remove the burlap as well as any string or cordage around the tree. The majority of the roots are in the top 12"; if you remove the burlap it allows the roots to grow more readily. You want to make sure the roots become restored following the transplanting. Most trees are missing 90% of their root system when you purchase them.
  5. Place the plant in the hole, insuring that the root flare is higher than the soil surrounding it. Amend the soil you removed from the hole by thoroughly mixing 25% organic matter such as compost or planting mix with the native soil.  Fill the amended soil around the plant, tamping it down firmly as you go.  
  6. There have been recent changes with how much compost to use when amending soil. The conventional thought, less is better.  The roots will grow more readily into the native soil if the amended soil isn't drastically different or "richer" in organic matter.  Some think that no amendments should be added however Decker's advocates the use of some amendments that provide assistance while the tree becomes established. 
  7. Water thoroughly and add more soil, if necessary, to bring the soil grade back to ground level.  Its' common for the soil to settle after you water the roots. Take caution not to place soil around the stem or root flare. 
  8. Apply a 2”-3” layer of mulch to retain moisture and provide organic matter as it decomposes.  Mulch simulates a natural system of decomposing matter that trees are accustomed to in their natural state.  Applying too much mulch is detrimental to the tree; it limits the amount of water that gets to the roots and can suffocate the roots if it's extreme. 
  9. Staking a tree is not always necessary and it's been shown to limit root development. Trees are stimulated to grow roots when they move in the wind. There are occasions to use stakes, primarily with trees growing in a container or pot. If you plant in late fall, it may be a prudent decision to stake the tree during the winter season. Remove the stakes and guy wires as soon as the tree is stabilized.

Follow-Up Care

Consistent watering is necessary and a critical part of getting a new plant established. Insufficient watering is the primary reason plants fail in the first 2 seasons. Remember that new trees/shrubs are missing approximately 90% of their roots when they're installed. Each day they will generate new roots in an effort to survive. We have to supplement their watering to compensate for this loss. By the end of the first full growing season they can restore 60-75% of the entire system. By the end of the 2nd full growing season they usually become self sufficient and nature provides all the precipitation they need.  Our job is to assist nature while the tree grows roots.

Whenever possible, use a hose to water the roots of your new tree, shrub and perennials. When you water, always make sure the roots are saturated by applying 3-10 gallons of water (approx. 2-5 minutes per plant with a hose). Do this twice a week - EVERY WEEK for the length of the growing season - March through October/November. The longer you water the better.  Roots often continue growing after the leaves drop, providing moisture assists this process.

By now some of you are thinking how to substitute for dragging the hose out twice a week. If you elect to use a soaker hose, remember to watch it work. Make sure that moisture is emitting from the hose and let it run for 5-8 hours depending on the water pressure. After running the soaker hose for 6 hours, dig down beneath the hose and see if water leached down 6-8". This is what proper watering looks like below ground.  Continue watering in order to get the saturation to a depth of 6-8" or more. Do not be concerned with over watering. If you apply more than 5 gallons it will not cause harm as long as the soil drains out properly. Over watering occurs when soil is compromised or compacted and doesn't percolate through the soil. 

If you rely on an existing irrigation system to provide enough water, it's likely your trees will not succeed. Irrigation isn't set up to provide enough volume of water at a single time. Most often irrigation is set up to water your lawn and apply a pint or a quart to the roots of a tree. This is the same as doing no watering. You can use an automated system with soaker hoses as long as you run it long enough to provide the gallons that saturates the soil to a depth of 6-8". Take time to check the depth of the water that leaches into the soil, this is what proper watering looks like below ground.

  1. Summer is the most stressful time of year, very hot and usually dry. Continue to care for your new planting(s) during the 2nd summer. You can abbreviate the frequency of watering the following year, as long as you're watering to saturation (3-5 gallons).
  2. Do not water every day. It's important the soil have time to dry out because this is when the roots grow. Rhododendrons in particular don't do well when they're constantly wet. If it's unusually dry or hot, you can provide a 3rd frequency of watering.
  3. Be persistent and continue watering every week during the first growing season.
  4. If you plant during summer months - Start by watering 3 times a week for 8 weeks. Then reduce to 2 times per week. Summer conditions are very tough on new plantings, I've never hesitated to plant in my yard during the summer months, knowing I can provide the necessary care.

Fertilizing and Pruning

  1. Decker's Nursery advocates the use of mycorrhizal spores (Bio-Tone) and high Phosphorous fertilizers to stimulate root development.  Root & Grow, Super Phosphate, or Bone Meal are all beneficial. Usually the application method determines what product you select to use.

    ** If you don't provide a bio stimulant or fertilizer the tree will still be fine as long as it's watered properly. The more care you provide the sooner your tree will become self sufficient. 

    Switch to a maintenance fertilizer in subsequent years. Decker's recommends the Espoma Organic Fertilizers (Plant Tone or Holly Tone) to provide nutrients that leach out of our landscape soils. This leaching is constant and needs to be supplemented. In nature the Nutrient Cycle happens when debris falls to the ground and decomposes into the soil. Most of us don't want our properties to appear this way so we remove the debris and disrupt the cycle that nature intended. 
  2. Pruning is a technical process and requires 2 things. #1 Know how to prune properly; #2 Always have a purpose for pruning. If you want your plant to be healthy; just let it grow. Pruning is only beneficial when there's an objective. It's always beneficial to remove dead tissue, and the other common reason is to maintain the size of a plant. Be sure to discuss your pruning techniques with one of our experts when you're in the store.

BAD Pruning is WORSE than NO Pruning. 


  1. Prepare your planting area well. Always make the hole wider and not deeper. Make sure the Root Flare remains above ground. Use soil amendments at a rate of 25% that encourages the roots to expand beyond the root ball. 
  2. Make a commitment to watering twice a week to saturation. Do this every week through the first growing season into November. Make sure to continue caring for your tree especially in the 2nd summer when harm may come from hot and dry conditions.  Your efforts will provide magnificent results!!

    Plant Size Amount of Water per Application

    Small Shrub 4-5 gallons

    Large Shrub 7-10 gallons

    Small Trees 7-10 gallons

    Large Trees (over 2" diameter) 10-20 gallons 
  3. Woody Plants take 2 years to get established. Do not be concerned if your tree doesn't flower in the 2nd year, it's using the stored energy from photosynthesis to restore the roots, at the expense of reproduction. The sooner your tree establishes the sooner the flowering will be provided. Fertilizers are beneficial with this process. 

First Year Sleep - Second Year Creep - Third Year Leap!