Planting and Maintaining Trees & Shrubs

image of squirrel in a maintained tree

If your team plans to plant trees and shrubs, following these best practices can help ensure the plantings make it to maturity. 

Planting Trees & Shrubs

Generally, spring is the best time to plant trees and shrubs. It gives them time to establish before summer's hot, dry weather. 

Here are some things to consider before, during, and after planting new trees and shrubs: 


Plan Your Plantings

Get to know the area where the planting will take place. Also, research the potential trees and shrubs. For growing success, the location and plants need to be compatible. 

Getting to know the compatibility means understanding:

  • Sun exposure needs of the plantings
  • Condition of the soil
  • Watering preferences/availability of water
  • Tolerance of the area's extreme weather conditions
  • Special considerations based on land usage

For example, you don't want to plant a water-loving plant like a willow tree in the middle of a prairie that drains well and dries out quickly. Another example, you'll save on future maintenance costs if taller trees aren't planted near power or telephone lines. 

Getting the soil tested helps with decision-making and detecting potential problems that may interfere with growth. It's a quick, relatively inexpensive way to ensure the planting area supports the tree or shrub's growth. 

Finally, consider purchasing smaller trees and shrubs. Smaller plants are usually less expensive, require a smaller hole dug, and adjust better than planting large trees or shrubs. 


Hole Size Matters

Most trees and shrubs getting established in new soil grow their roots out to the side of the root ball--not deeper into the ground. The hole should provide enough space for the roots to branch out and further establish themselves.

As a rule of thumb, the hole should be between 6 to 12 inches wider on each side and 6 inches deeper than the root ball.

Use an auger to dig the holes. Hand-held ones or those operated from the power take-off of a tractor both work fine. You may also want to "rough up" the sides of a hole with a shovel for roots to penetrate the planting pit wall when using augers.

Make a few vertical cuts around the root ball before placing the tree or shrub in the hole. The cutting encourages the roots to grow out of their circular patterns caused by being in a container. A sharp knife works well.


Water Regularly

New plantings need water to get established. Right after planting, don't forget to water the area well. 

Water daily for the first week or two after planting. Make sure the new planting gets thorough watering each time. 


Supporting and Protecting the Tree

Smaller trees and shrubs usually don't need to be supported after planting. Trees above 7 feet tall may need support by staking or using guy wires. In higher-use areas, like near playgrounds, guy wires may be a safety hazard; staking would be a better option.

Also, you may need to protect your tree from animals like rabbits or deer who nibble at the bark. Install a wire mesh cage or fencing around the tree trunk. The height and area that needs caging depend on the animals you're trying to keep away. 


Feed the Plantings

Initially, you don't want to use any nitrogen fertilization because it may burn the new plantings' roots.

Once the new plantings establish, late fall or early spring is generally the best time to apply fertilizer.  

Shrubs may get fertilized with a broadcast spreader. Apply fertilizer to trees by punch-bar, drilled holes, or a surface application. Select fertilizer based on soil testing and the plant's nutritional needs. 


Maintaining Plantings While They're Establishing

After putting that planning, money, and hard work into planting new trees and shrubs, it's time to protect that investment. Caring for new plantings during the first two years allows it to establish and develop robust root systems that will support them for years to come. 

Here are the essentials of maintaining trees and shrubs: 


Mulch Just the Right Amount

Mulching helps keep moisture in the ground, improves soil structure and nutrients, and prevents weed growth. And, when done well, it looks great. 

Mulch comes in two types:

  • Organic: Natural materials that eventually decompose like pine straw, wood chips, bark, composted leaves, chipped brush, old hay, and coarse peat.
  • Inorganic: Mulch made from hardier materials that may not decompose. Inorganic much can include gravel, small rocks, landscape fabric, or rubber from shredded tires. 

Inorganic mulch often costs more, but it lasts longer and maintains its appearance better. Some inorganic mulch may not be appropriate around new plantings. Conversely, organic mulch usually has to be reapplied each spring, but it provides more nutrients to the soil.   

Some inorganic mulch may not be appropriate around new plantings.

Remove grass within a 3-foot area of the new tree or shrubs. Then make the layer of mulch 2 to 4 inches deep. Keep the mulch from touching the trunk of the tree.

Periodically, pay attention to how the new plantings are responding. Not enough mulch and weeds may move in, or the soil will dry out too quickly. Too much mulch, however, may suffocate shallow-rooted plants. 


Pull Those Weeds

Even with good mulching, some weeds are going to pop up eventually. It's best to pull them out by the roots before they get a chance to go to seed.


Water Routinely

Water every two to three days for up to 3 months after planting. After that, water weekly until fully established. 

Like mulch, too much or too little water can damage a new planting. The ideal condition is when the soil is moist--not soggy. A damp soil that dries out from time to time allows more oxygen into the ground.

When in doubt, have someone on the crew insert a garden trowel about 2 inches into the ground near the tree. Move the blade back and forth to create a small trench. Touch the area in the trench--if the soil's moist, the planting doesn't need watering. 

After the first year or two, the plantings get established. You generally don't have to worry about watering them unless there are severe dry conditions.


Prune When Necessary

Pruning serves different functions and varies depending on the species of plant. Generally, the purpose of pruning can include:

  • Removing dead wood: A dead branch is a safety hazard. Eventually, gravity will bring it down. Pruning dead branches in a controlled environment ensure the safety of employees and visitors during their removal.
  • Shaping the plants: Some garden areas may require pruning shrubs or trees for appearance. Severely pruned shrubs, however, tend to look unnatural or synthetic. 
  • Rejuvenating the plants: Some plant species require minor pruning from time to time, while others thrive with a severe cutback each year. Check with your plant's supplier for pruning instructions. 


Controlling Insects and Disease

Smaller recreation departments may not have qualified staff to handle tree disease or infestations. If a tree appears unhealthy, get a tree professional to make an accurate diagnosis and treatment suggestion. 

Many pesticides require special equipment and licensed operators. Some can be very dangerous if ingested or get in the skin. Use certified staff or contractors to ensure the treatment is correct. 

Get help through the local USDA Cooperative Extension Service office. 


Planning for Your Plantings' Success

Unless an effective maintenance system gets set in place, tree care tasks may be missed or overlooked. In most cases, a parks and recreation team will be planting multiple trees or shrubs--probably in various locations. It can get difficult to track everything. 

More parks and recreation departments are turning to maintenance software to help manage the many tasks they juggle daily. Computerized maintenance management software (CMMS) is a cloud-based software solution for scheduling inspections and tasks, managing work orders, keeping necessary documents or instructions in an accessible cloud-based location, and more.

The maintenance team then has a central hub to communicate when and what needs to get done. They could also report problems from the field or access any documents you created about specific care instructions for a plant species.

Basically, a CMMS helps make parks and recreation maintenance teams more efficient and everyone's life a little easier.