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  • Writer's pictureEden's Garden Design

Planting in Utah Soils

Every once in a while we have shrubs or trees die and upon digging them up, we find the roots never grew. The burlap and cage is still around the root ball. This means that the tree or shrub was not planted properly for it to grow. In most places across the US this does not happen but in our particular climate, soil, and high plateau desert region this is a common occurrence. Planting effectively does determine life or death of many of our trees and shrubs. Taking a few simple steps to ensure proper planting techniques will greatly increase the chances of your trees and shrubs thriving in your landscape.

The first step includes knowing the type of soil you have. Sandy soils are loose and hard for plants to root into, so you will want to supplement the soil with compost and possibly top soil while you are planting. Clay soil is really hard for tree and shrub roots to get established so breaking up the soil and adding compost, perhaps some sand will help the roots grow through the heavy clay. In both situations add mulch or compost on the top to keep moisture near the roots and to feed the plant. In either soil type you want good water drainage for the plant to avoid root rot. When first planted, the plant will need additional watering. This is because it will take potentially 2 weeks for the plant to realize it can take water from the ground around it and not just from the immediate soil in its root ball mass. You will need to keep the root ball mass moist until the tree starts taking water from the outside soil. Once this happens, you can ease it into the normal watering cycle you have

If you are unsure of what the watering should be, look at a number of factors.

Amount of light: Little light will indicate less water needed while lots of sunlight will naturally be the opposite.

Protection: If a plant is heavily protected from the elements, less water is needed.

Soil type: Clay soil does not drain quickly and sandy soil does. So water often but in short spurts in sandy soils. In clay you will need to water for longer periods but less frequently.

Drainage: The slope of the yard and type of soil both determine drainage. You want good drainage for most plants, especially evergreens, but you need to test how quickly water drains in each basic location in the yard. The best way to test is, when digging the hole for planting, place the tree or shrub in the hole and fill it partway with dirt so it stands on its own. Then fill it with water. Note how long it takes the water to drain away. Quick drainage would indicate more water needed multiple times. Slow drainage would then translate to less water.

Competition: Other plants in the same location will compete for water and nutrients from the same area so a balance will be needed depending on how much water each of the plants or trees prefers, for example a hackberry tree pulls a lot of water and nutrients from the soil around it and can kill the plants growing below it unless a balance for both is made.

Clay heavy soils can be pretty problematic so extra care will need to be used. When planting in clay soils, dig the hole twice as wide as the root ball but not deeper than the root ball. In many situations, especially evergreen trees, you want the tree slightly higher than the ground around it so the drainage slopes away from the root ball and back into the heavy clay. This way you can avoid root rot for the tree or shrub. The extra width allows you to break up the soil and mix in compost and perhaps sand and gypsum. This will go a long way in helping the roots get easily established and growing strong. Adding expanded shale, gypsum, minerals and organic materials to soil when planting will also help. Expanded shale aids in breaking down the clay so the roots can grow, Gypsum helps the plants combat excessive salt. Compost is the best way to feed the plants and keep moisture around the roots as it grows. The first two years are the delicate stages for trees and shrubs and if the soil is easy to grow through during that time, you have greater chances of success with your plants. Once they are established, they will find ways to push through the heavier or less pleasing soil types. 

If you are planting a tree or shrub with a cage and burlap on it, dig the hole as stated above and place the plant in the hole with the both the burlap and cage. If the cage is not the mesh kind with small holes this will work, otherwise remove the cage before planting. Evergreen trees that come in cages and burlap often have cages with little wire so they can be planted with them. The roots of evergreen and some other trees and shrubs are so fragile that if you move too much cage or burlap before planting you risk breaking these rather small roots. And as we all know, since its these roots that bring water and nutrients to the plant, damaging them could endanger its life. If you put the entire plant and ball into the hole, you then can remove the top and side layers of burlap so the roots can grow laterally. This is the ideal situation for your trees and shrubs. The burlap on the base will not hinder the trees and shrubs from getting established but the burlap on the top or sides will hinder the roots. Cover the root ball with soil and then top with compost. Twine is often used to keep the burlap attached to the tree and root ball. This twine must be removed especially around the trunk of the tree or shrub. If it is left there, the twine will act as a hangman’s noose and will choke the trunk as it grows and expands until the twine entirely cuts through the cambium living layer of the plant and successfully killing it. 

If you are planting a plant that is root-bound, you will want to break up the larger white roots around the outside of the ball to stimulate the plant to regrow roots laterally instead of the circle it has been growing. Most experts advise really breaking down the root ball before planting, but that is often too much disturbance for plants trying to survive our climate. I would recommend a less aggressive approach to the root balls of plants for our region. Be sure to soak the ground and root ball of any plants you are planting.

In conclusion, planting is an art that can be easily mastered if you know your soil type and have the right amendments for your soil. Dig the hole twice as wide, plant in the cage but remove twine and burlap, mix in compost with the soil and top with compost. If you desire, you can add expanded shale and gypsum to the soil when planting. Avoid disturbing the roots too much on any plant during the planting stage but just enough to stimulate new growth. Keep the root ball moist the first two weeks and then ease the plant into the normal watering for that area of your yard.

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