How to Plant & Handle Trees, Evergreens & Shrubs

Properly planting trees is one of the best investments you can make for the long-term health of your trees. When done properly, your plants will flourish and cause less heartache in the future. These recommendations are from decades of experience and echo within the fields of horticulture and arboriculture. Plants are living things that cost money, and taking 10 minutes to read this brief article will help protect your investment.

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Before Planting

All plants are not the same. Plant selection is critical; they all have different growing requirements. Likewise, different landscapes have different growing conditions such as light exposure, soil types, surrounding toxicities, pests, and other wildlife – it’s nature. We recommend thinking critically about your site or seeking consultation from a professional. The plant’s mature size will dictate its proper siting relative to other plants, buildings, utilities, etc.

Handling Plants

  • Plants are living things – handle them with care. Always pick up plant material by the root ball or by the container, never by the trunk or stems. Plan; install as soon as possible. If you aren’t ready for planting, let us take care of your plants until you are ready for them.
  • Plants with root balls or in containers are heavy. Be sure you are capable of lifting and transporting, or get help to assist you. You don’t want to damage your new investment or risk personal injury.
  • Johnson’s Nursery offers all variations of delivery, setting, and installation services.

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Planting Guide

Properly planting trees is one of the best investments you can make for the long-term health of your trees. When done properly, your plants will flour…

Picking Up Plants

Please come prepared. Larger plants like trees, evergreens, and larger shrubs require the use of a pickup truck (usually without a cap) or a trailer. Large plants will not fit into small cars. Please bring the following items with you:

  • Lightweight tarps or bed sheets – These help protect the leaves or new buds from being ripped apart or desiccated by winds while you’re driving home. This can kill a plant.
  • Lightweight ropes and small wooden blocks – These are useful to stabilize the plant(s). Plants rolling around can cause damage to you, your vehicle, your trailer, or others.
  • Wadding (old towels, sections or carpets, or clothes) – These are useful to protect the plant if it needs to rest on something. For example, a tree trunk leaning over a truck’s tailgate. It helps prevent scarring on the trunk during transport. We’re here to help load your plants, but please come prepared.

Digging the Planting Hole

“A plant can pull itself into the Earth to get what it needs, but it cannot push itself out when it’s suffocating.”

Don’t dig deeper than the plant’s root ball. Plant perennials and groundcovers at existing grade. For trees, shrubs, and evergreens, in most cases, plant them 1-3 inches above grade. Dig a wide hole, 1.5-2 times wider than the root ball. The wider the better.

Do not take chances!

Before digging, call Diggers Hotline to locate underground utilities.

Properly planting trees is one of the best investments you can make for the long-term health of your trees. When done properly, your plants will flour…

Why dig wider than the root ball?

Southeastern Wisconsin has poorly drained, compact clay soils – especially around new construction homes and commercial properties – and roots can have a slower time penetrating them. Soil that is loosened by digging and backfilling creates a healthier environment for root growth and establishment.

Why plant above grade?

A plant’s roots need oxygen and moisture. Planting slightly above grade ensures good drainage and more access to oxygen. Planting deep inhibits access to oxygen. Planting too deeply could damage the trunk.

Why keep mulch away from the root flare and trunk?

Mulch retains moisture and decomposes over time. Mulch piled up and directly touching the trunk may cause the plant’s bark to rot. Refer to our dig hole diagram.

Planting and Soil Amendments

Before setting the plant in the hole, use a tape measure to check the hole depth one last time. Again, the top of the ball should be 1-3″ above grade. Carefully lift the plant by the root ball or roll it gently into the hole.

Do I remove the burlap, wire cage, and twine?

  • Plastic containers: Yes, remove these completely.
  • Burlap & wire cage: No, do not remove these. Burlap biodegrades and wire cages rust away. These help stabilize the plant while it’s establishing.
  • Twine – Hemp (tan color) – No, these are biodegradable.
  • Twine – Synthetic (white color) – Yes, remove this completely.

** Three to six months after planting you may carefully any burlap and hemp twine from the base of the plant (root flare).

With the plant safely in the hole, it is time to backfill. The majority of your backfill should be the soil that came out of the hole. Amendments like compost, plant starter, or peat moss can be added to the backfill; however, it shouldn’t exceed 20% of the backfill. Mix any amendments in thoroughly before backfilling.

Backfill in layers. After each layer, check the plant from all angles to ensure it remains straight – this is the optimal time to adjust the plant. Gently compress between each layer. Add water to help settle the soil and to give the lower roots a drink. DON’T WRENCH the trunk to correct posture. Use a shovel to lift under the root zone, add backfill, and compress accordingly.


Typically, you don’t fertilize during planting. Instead, allow the plant to establish before trying to stimulate growth.


If you properly install your new plant, then you shouldn’t need staking. Avoid staking if possible. A wide, soft material will minimize abrasion to trunk tissue. Plan on removing any stakes within a year and when the tree is firmly in the ground. Avoid using staking to correct a plant’s posture. It’s healthier for the plant to dig under one side of the root zone, then add dirt, to correct posture issues.

Additional Articles

Water Your Plants

Bark Mulch

Pruning & Your Plants