Available in countless varieties, bushes add depth and diversity to the landscape, whether they are fruit- or flower-bearing, evergreen or deciduous. Use them to define borders, frames, or fences—the choice is yours. But to ensure the health of your shrubbery, make sure you understand how to plant a bush properly.
Choose a location for your bush, keeping in mind that like most ornamental plants, shrubbery requires well-draining soil. How do you know whether or not there is good soil drainage in the location you’re considering? Try this method of finding out:
• Dig a hole one foot wide and one foot deep
• Fill the hole with water and wait for it to drain completely
• Fill the hole again, then wait half an hour
• Now use a ruler to measure how much water has drained
The ideal soil drains at a rate of one or two inches per hour. So if anywhere between a half inch and one inch of water has drained within 30 minutes, congratulations! You’ve found a great place to plant a bush. Of course, it may be necessary to test a few parts of your property before a suitable spot is found.
Generally, higher ground has better drainage; focus on the most elevated parts of your landscape. But know that if your heart is set on a particular area prone to slow drainage, you can encourage the process by tilling a radius of soil as wide as fifteen feet around the place where you’d like to plant.
You’ve found the perfect location to plant a bush? Terrific. At this stage, it’s wise to get a grip on how much space your shrubbery will occupy at full growth. Find out the mature size of your shrub species, then dig holes to mark out its dimensions in relation to preexisting plantings, fences, and buildings.
There are three types of shrub preparations on the market today: container-grown, balled and burlapped, and bare root. The process for planting each is slightly different. Organize your tools and supplies in advance so that once you begin, the roots don’t have a chance to dry out during their transfer from wrapping to soil. If your plant is very large or heavy, enlist the help of another person to move it safely, with no injury to yourself or damage to the bush.
Plant bare-rooted bushes in late fall, once the shrub has gone dormant (around early November), or wait until early spring, before new growth develops. Technically, container-grown or balled and burlapped shrubs can be planted any time, but they tend to fare better if installed on the same schedule as bare-rooted selections. If you decide to plant any shrubbery in late spring or summer, success depends on your vigilance in watering the newly planted bush.
Different holes are suggested for planting shrubbery with different root preparations.
Container-grown or balled and burlapped. Dig a hole two or three times as wide and deep as the earth ball. Flatten the soil at the bottom of the hole, or slightly raise it in the middle, to promote drainage. The sides of the hole should be sloped slightly outward. The root ball, once inserted, should either sit flush with the top of the hole or rise a couple of inches above it.
Bare root. A few hours before planting, begin soaking the roots of your bare-rooted bush. Meanwhile, dig a hole roughly equivalent to the depth of the soil in which the shrub was originally planted (nursery instructions may indicate this, or you can estimate from the soil mark on the trunk). It’s crucial to avoid planting too far down, as doing so blocks oxygen from reaching the roots. Build a slight cone shape at the bottom-center of the hole, and make sure the hole is wide enough to accommodate the shrub’s spreading roots.
Setting the Bush
Handle the plant by its root area, as damage may result from grasping the stem. Set the plant gently into the hole in order to test its depth; make any necessary adjustments at this point, either removing some more soil or adding a little back in. Orient the plant so that its most beautiful side faces out.
If you’re working with a balled and burlapped plant, there’s no need to completely remove the burlap, unless it has been treated or is made of vinyl. So long as the burlap is biodegradable, you only need to peel it back from the trunk. However, remember to take off any plastic, wood, or wire still attached to the shrub.
If your container-grown bush has tightly coiled roots, now is the time to use your hands or a knife to loosen and separate them. Bare-rooted bushes do best if you spread the roots over the cone shape already formed along the bottom of the planting hole.
Use soil removed to make the hole to fill half the excavated area around the plant, then pour water over the dirt to eliminate air pockets and help the roots settle. Add the remainder of the soil, tamping it down as you go to keep the plant stable and upright. Finally, shovel on a layer of topsoil. Water again.
Fertilizing newly planted bushes is not generally advised, as roots be established in order for fertilizer to be effective. That said, recommendations do vary, depending on the shrub and its preparation and the time of year in which you are planting, so the wise course is to follow the grower’s specifications.
Apply a three-inch layer of mulch over the topsoil. Mulch helps maintains moisture and helps insulate the roots from temperature fluctuations.
As soon as you finish planting a bush, water it thoroughly. Set and follow a regular watering pattern from that point forward. Again, consult the grower’s instructions, as how much and how often you water the shrub will vary based on what and when you are planting.