A casual glance at any garden center should make it clear that many Georgians are busy planting in their landscapes now. But many unknowningly give their new shrubs little chance to survive, said a University of Georgia expert.
Gary Wade, an Extension Service horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, said four simple steps can greatly enhance the success of landscape planting efforts.
"The four most important steps in planting shrubs," Wade said, "are digging the right size hole, planting the shrub at the right depth, mulching and watering."
The right size hole, he said, is simply a good bit wider than the plant's root system.
"If you dig the hole too deep, backfill with soil and tamp it to prevent settling," he said. "The top of the root ball should be level with the soil surface."
Don't mix organic matter in the planting-hole soil. Wade said research shows that soil amendments in a planting hole don't help. They can even hurt, by discouraging roots from venturing into the surrounding native soil.
If a shrub is planted too deep, its deep roots die, Wade said. The plant will try to develop a shallower root system. But its early setback will likely keep it from growing into a vigorous, hardy plant. And it may not survive the first harsh, stressing weather that comes along.
A point to remember, Wade said, is to plant the shrub with its upper roots at ground level.
"You want to put very little soil - hardly any soil at all - on top of the roots," he said. "Pull the soil to the sides, rather than on top of the roots. Then cover it with a good mulch. Research shows mulching to have great value to the plant's survival and growth."
Mulching prevents severe moisture fluctuations around the roots, he said. It keeps the soil and roots cooler in stressful Georgia summers, too. It keeps down competition from weeds and grasses and helps keep certain soil-borne diseases off the leaves.
The fourth factor in successful planting, Wade said, is water.
"Water the plant thoroughly in the container before you plant it," he said. "It's hard to rewet a dry root ball once it's in the ground. Also, watering after planting helps settle the soil and eliminate air pockets that can dry out the roots."
Don't put fertilizer in the planting hole, he said. Wait four to six weeks. Then put a light application of 10-10-10 or 13-13-13 fertilizer on the soil surface around the perimeter of the planting hole.
Those four steps - digging an oversized hole, planting at the proper depth, mulching and watering - can help give new shrubs a good start to a healthy, vigorous life, Wade said.