A $100 Hole for a $10 Tree

Posted on May 10, 2016 by Becky Staneruck

By Rob Sculley/Shorty’s Help and Advice


You’ve probably heard the old adage, “Dig a $100 hole for a $10 tree” or something similar. There is a lot of wisdom in this saying. Most short and long term issues can be avoided by simply planting properly.

But what does a $100 hole look like?

1)     Dig your hole 2-3 times as WIDE as the tree or shrub root ball. Plant roots tend to grow shallow and wide, and looser soil will promote this.

2)  Dig your hole NO DEEPER THAN the actual root ball. In fact, I recommend planting the root ball slightly HIGHER than the surrounding soil. There’s another old adage: “Plant it high, it won’t die. Plant it low, it won’t grow.” Never a truer word was spoken! The most common cause of plant failure, HANDS DOWN, be it trees, shrubs, annuals or perennials, is being planted TOO DEEP (sometimes even as little as 1 inch!) If you get this step right, you will almost never fail.

Higher planting promotes better drainage and more oxygen to the root zone which translates to faster growth. If it’s planted too low the plant roots can suffocate and its stems (which are designed to be ABOVE ground) will rot. At best, the plant will languish and stunt. At worst, it will often be a slow lingering death. **There are only a few exceptions to this rule: Tomatoes, Hardy Fuchsias and Clematis actually benefit from being planted deeper in the soil. But as I said, these are rare exceptions.

3) Pre-water the plant thoroughly. This will help keep the root ball intact when planting and ensure that the new plant is nice and well watered before planting.

4) Now take the plant out of the container and examine the root ball. Sometimes the roots will have formed to the shape of the pot or be slightly root bound. It’s a good practice at this point to loosen them up by gently massaging them to encourage them to venture out into the surrounding soil. Sometimes it is necessary to “Score” the root ball (slash across the root mass with a sharp knife) to stimulate lateral root growth. Don’t worry, it won’t hurt the plant. Loosening and gently breaking up the root ball will help avoid future problems like “girdling” (where the root ball grows in a tangled mass and actually strangles the plant or tree as the roots increase in size) I have seen established trees and arborvitae just suddenly decline and die for no apparent reason; girdling was the cause.

5) Once your hole has the proper profile, set the plant’s root ball in place. Once again, make sure that the top of the root ball is slightly higher than the surrounding soil (to allow for settling). If you have to toss soil BACK into the bottom of the hole to adjust the level, do so.  Back fill the hole with 75% native soil and about 25% organic compost. At this point, I like to throw a couple handfuls of organic starter fertilizer right in the hole to get those roots going. Firmly pack down the soil around the root ball to remove any air pockets (I use the handle end of my shovel). Add more soil if needed.

6) Create a small moat around the newly planted plant, making sure NOT to cover the root ball. Water the new tree or plant generously by filling the moat several times, allowing it to drain between waterings. A light” mulching” of compost or bark around the plant is okay to retain even soil moisture and prevent weeds but once again, avoid touching the stems or trunk and applying it too thickly (a couple of inches will do).

7) How frequently to water your new tree, shrub, or plant really depends on several factors: your soil, the weather, and the size of the root ball (to name a few). What I can tell you is that you should NEVER depend on the occasional rain shower or even lawn sprinklers to adequately “deep soak” your new addition to the garden. I much prefer the “fill the moat, let it drain, fill it again, let it drain (4-5 times)” method. When you are thinking about watering again, stick your finger in the soil near the root ball. If it feels like a damp, cool, squeezed out sponge, that is sufficient moisture for next day or so.

On average, a tree should be DEEPLY watered 2-3 times a week. Shrubs should be watered every 2 days. Azaleas with their dense root balls dry out very quickly, as do small plants with small root balls. They may need watering DAILY.

Again, get to know your soil. Stick your finger in and dig around. If it’s moist, let it go for a day, then check again. This way you will get a better understanding about how quickly your soil dries out. The information just may surprise you.

Follow these steps and you will most certainly enjoy the life of your new tree and shrub for years to come.

Now let’s get planting!

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