The Basics Series: Planting and Staking

Updated: Oct 9, 2018

The Basics Series, as the name suggests, is a series of articles that lay out some of the basics of gardening and plant care – Soils, Mulches, Planting and Staking, Roots & Water, and Plant Fertilization. Our hope is that this series will be accessible to the beginning gardener while also offering some additional information that will prove valuable to those who have been digging in the dirt for a little longer (first lesson: dirt is what’s tracked onto your carpet, soil is what we plant into). If, along the way, you would like additional information on a particular subject, or if you have suggestions for additional blog posts please feel free to leave them in the comments below.

The first two posts in this series Understanding Soil, and Balance in the Soil discussed some of the complexity that is found in the soil beneath our feet and what you can do when your soil doesn’t seem to want to produce. Now that you’ve assessed your soil made any necessary corrections, you’re ready to plant. Green side up? Yes, but that’s not nearly enough to assure a successful operation.

A Successful Planting

The next time you’re out for a walk or a drive, pay some attention to the trees that line so many of our streets. If you look closely enough, you’ll see that many of them have bark that’s peeling away, roots that are coming up from the soil rather than down into it, leaves with peculiar shades of the wrong kind of yellow. You’ll see bagworms on some, spots on the leaves of others, bark that is oozing something nasty, holes in a few, and some that never seem to grow. Maybe you won’t even need to take a drive to see this. Perhaps this is the condition of some of the plants in your own yard. So, what’s going on? Quite often, these problems are simply (though regrettably) symptoms of poor planting technique. A tree that is planted poorly will have roots that develop poorly, with nutrient uptake potential that is poor, and pest resistance that is poor, with flower power that is poor, and longevity that is poor. That’s right! When “green side up” is the only planting technique we employ, brevity of life is all we can expect.

So what is a successful planting? Simply put, a successful planting is a planting that meets your objectives. If your only objective is to have a tree planted in the front yard or a line of shrubs along the back patio, then go with green side up. But if it’s your objective (as I believe it is) is to have vibrant plants that bloom very well, maintain a nice shape, have good color, add value to your property and live for many years to come, the following will help get you there.

Right Plant, Right Place

Whether you’re planting fruits and vegetables, shade trees or annual flowers, each plant has cultural requirements that must be met to achieve a successful planting. Light requirements, seasonal temperatures, wind. Everything we plant is native to some geographical location that provides exactly what the plant needs to thrive. Some plants are native to Indiana, some to Oregon, others to Japan. So, when we move a plant from one area to another we need to understand and replicate its native habitat as well as we can. If the plant's native habitat involves a lot of shade, we need to plant ours in the shade. If its native habitat is constantly wet, we need to prepare for this. If it grows in full sun… Right plant, right place. And this includes soil conditions. More about soil here and here. Before you panic, though, understand that most plants you’ll find at the local nursery or garden center will have tags on them that will tell you about their cultural requirements. They’ll often tell about the mature size of the plant, how much sun it wants, how much water it requires, and sometimes a little bit about soil and fertilization requirements. It’s usually enough to get by.

Before You Dig – The Importance of the Root Flare

For most trees and many shrubs it is necessary to find the root flare before you determine the depth of the hole you’ll need to dig. The root flare is simply the portion at the base of the plant where the trunk tissue widens and transitions into or “flares” into the root tissue. The hole needs to be dug only so deep as to allow the root flare to remain just above soil level when you’re finished. Remember the poorly colored, stunted, and scrubby trees that I described above? Most of these got to their current woeful condition by being planted too deeply. If you can’t see the root flare, there’s trouble on the way. Plants with their root flare buried are more prone to drowning due to the (seemingly insignificant, but not) increased difficulty in getting oxygen. Root rot also thrives in such conditions. Beyond this, when plants have soil piled up around their trunk this will often lead to fungal problems, split bark, stunted growth and more. If they’re planted too high they’ll simply dry out and wither. Trunk above, roots below (more on roots in a following post).

In the photos below, exposing all of the roots was done for educational purposes only. There’s no need to do this with any of your plants.

It’s often necessary to remove some of the soil from the plant you just purchased before you put it in the ground. Why? Imagine a tree nursery that has grown 1,000 whips which they’re now going to plant into the field to grow to a selling size. The nursery obviously doesn’t want the trees to blow over every time the wind kicks up so they have to come up with a solution to this. And since trying to reroute the wind is only an exercise in futility, they’re left with two options: 1) buy 1,000 stake kits and hire a slew of people to stake the trees, or 2) plant all the trees a little too deeply to prevent them from blowing over. Option one requires a sizable fortune in materials and labor. Option 2 requires no materials and no additional labor. Guess which option they usually go for. The following pictures will help you with the answer.

Notice the location of the flagging tape – level with the burlap in the first picture. If the assumption is that the top of the root ball should be level with the ground you’re planting into, you’d likely be making a costly mistake. As we opened the burlap and began to remove the excess soil, you can see in the picture progression that the root flare was 5 or so inches beneath the top of the root ball. That’s 5 or so inches of extra soil that holds moisture against the trunk tissue and keeps the roots too deep to breathe. Even after you’ve finished planting the tree or shrub – even after you’ve mulched it, the root flare should still be visible (if it’s a particularly ugly flare, you can put a dusting of mulch on it just for color).

The Planting Hole

So the location of the root flare determines the depth of the planting hole, but what about the width? Well, this part is easier. Though we’re often told that the hole needs to be twice (!!!) the diameter of the root ball, this will contribute more to your back feeling worse than it will to the plant feeling better. The idea behind this double-sized misconception is that having so much loose soil around the finished planting will allow the roots a few years of easy growth before they have to interact with the hard clay beyond the hole. Sounds good, true. But don’t hurt yourself. If the planting hole is only 2” larger than the root ball, the plant will do just fine. All the tree needs is to be back-filled with a good, loose soil. Any clumps that you plan on back-filling with will need to be broken down into something closer to a bagged potting soil consistency. If the clumps go directly into the planting hole, it’s likely that they will create large air pockets, dry out the roots, and lead to heartache when the tree withers.

Note: If you’re planting in the middle of the lawn, removing the sod in a circle far larger than the root ball can be helpful as it provides a “lip” that will help keep the mulch in and the grass out.

Treating the Roots

Notice the loose roots that have been freed from the circle of doom. This is what you need to accomplish with potted plants.

Plants that are purchased in containers rather than balled in burlap will often have circling roots. Since circling roots can lead to girdled (choked) plants, these roots need to be persuaded to grow outward. There are two ways this can happen. One is to slice the root ball from top to bottom 4-5 times in as many different places with a pocket knife. This technique should be used only on root masses that are too dense for using the second method. The second (better) method involves grabbing the roots with your fingers and working them loose. Don’t worry about ripping some of them, you will. It’s fine. It’s good. Grab the root ball and tug outward on the roots with both hands in 3 or 4 different places. This will get them where they need to be.

So, now you have the right plant for the right place. You know to look for the root flare (and keep it visible even after you’re finished planting) and to loosen any circling roots. You know to backfill with loose soil (not grass clumps). What else? Don’t stomp the soil when you’re done! It doesn’t help. In fact, it can break large roots.

On MulchingIf you haven’t read up on the many benefits of using the right mulch, you can do that here. Beyond what’s already been written, I’ll add two more tips for a healthy, successful planting.

  1. Keep it off the root flare. If the sight of the root flare is one that you can’t stomach, it’s fine to cover it with about ¼” of mulch. But remember, trunks above ground and roots below. Piling mulch up around the trunk will lead to problems.

  2. Keep it off the root flare. Even in the winter. It seems as though some people have determined that trees need to have their trunks mulched in the winter, apparently to keep them warm. I think you’ll begin to notice them now that I’ve mentioned it. They’re everywhere! Large trees that have mulch piled 10 or 12 inches up the trunk. Mulch volcanoes are no good. Please, please don’t do it.

Right Staking

A few notes on staking:

It’s better to be reactive with staking than proactive. If the tree seems to stand up pretty well on its own, don’t worry about staking it.

If you do need to stake it, make sure there is a little sway to the tree that is still allowed. Don’t stake it so tightly that the tree can’t move back and forth a little. More on this and roots in general in the next post.

Kits that include all you’ll need to stake your tree can be found at most box stores. Yet, at those same stores you can usually find better material for a lower price that will serve your purpose better. Either way you go, here’s what you’ll need:

  • Stakes – depending on the size of the tree, you may need fenceposts (often called “T-posts”) but if you aren’t planting such a large tree you can buy tent stakes. The tent stakes are usually flaming yellow, 18” long with a hole to tie string to at the top. These work very well. Get three of them.

  • Rope or twine – About 30’. Most box stores will have rolls of yellow or pink twine. These are usually fine for most trees.

  • Tubing – About 2’ of a diameter large enough to get the twine through (tip: twist the end of the twine that you’re going to push through the tubing and when it gets stuck halfway through, blow into the tube). The box stores sell tubing by the foot, usually in the plumbing section.

  • Something to pound the stakes into the ground. A hammer works fine for the tent stakes.

If your mulch ring is large enough, you can pound the stakes into the mulch to avoid the need to mow or weed-whack around them.

Follow the instructions in the picture below. Run the twine through the tube until the tube is at the half-way point in the twine (equal lengths of twine come from both ends of the tube). Tie the twine where it exits the tube on both ends (as pictured). Tie the two equal lengths of twine to your tent stake or T-post.

See our Watering Guide for more info about watering your plants.

If you have any questions or comments, as always, feel free to leave them in the comments section below. Or you can email Andrew directly:

Read More in The Basics Series:

The Basics Series: Understanding Soil

The Basics Series: Balance in the Soil - Amendments and Their Kin

The Basics Series: Roots and Water

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