|Take the time to do a drainage test to decide whether and how much to amend the native soil. Dig a hole one foot deep and 8 inches wide, sort of like a post hole, and fill it with water. This is a test of percolation, so be patient. Ideally, the water should drain through the soil in about an hour, but certainly no more than 2, unless we are talking about a bog garden. Most soils in the inland South are poorly drained, and the test will take more than 2 hours and should be amended with organic matters to improve the conditions. Start that new bed or prepare a spot in the lawn for a new tree by drawing it with spray paint. Step back and be sure you like the size. Calculate the bed’s size by the expected mature size of the shrubs you want to plant or the size of the view you are creating. Believe me, I’ve made beds too small and too large, and one good look would have prevented the necessary redo in both cases. For single tree or shrub installations, prepare a site that is twice as wide and slightly deeper than the root ball you will be planting. To prevent future weeds, use a sharp-bladed spade to scrape off anything growing on the site. People will tell you to simply turn that green under and it will feed the soil, which is true, but it will also likely sprout into your new shrubs by summer. The ground simply will not be cold enough to stop them. Turn the soil over to a shovel’s depth and begin adding organic matters such as ground bark, leaf mold from the bottom of that pile in the backyard, true compost (either your own or a bagged product with manure in it), and organic fertilizer such as Mighty Grow. A combination works better than a single element, but don’t overdo it. To that shovel’s depth of native soil, add 2 or 3 inches of the organic matters. If you are not planting acid-lovers like azalea, camellia, holly, and gardenia, add a sprinkling of lime to the soil mix. Turn the mix well and shape it into a slightly raised bed with a sharp tined garden rake. The bed is ready, but will benefit from time as the materials meld together and attract the earthworms and microlife that live in the root zone. Plant carefully to be sure the shrub or tree will sit at or slightly higher than it was in the pot and slightly above ground level. Water well and mulch with 2 inches of organic mulch such as ground or shredded bark.
How you place shrubs and trees can determine how much you like the result. After all, these are long lived plants not easily moved or replaced like perennials and annuals. In terms of their ultimate size, if you are not a fan of pruning it may be wise to allow slightly more space than the plant label indicates. Our growing conditions are close to ideal oftentimes and plants often exceed expectations. You can buy big specimens, and should do that for the focal points in a new planting. But smaller shrubs that will be large later will of necessity have lots of space between them at first. Fill it with annuals to attract interest, nurture pollinators, and hold down the weeds. You can, of course, plant close with intentions of pulling some plants out in the future. An architect pal of mine says this is usually done for curb appeal or an instant view and I do keep that in mind. As you place shrubs, remember these truths:
• Straight lines of shrubs or trees imply a destination, so give them one such as your front door.
• Curved lines lead the eye, but not always the feet, so use them to entice a visitor into unseen parts of the garden.
• Whimsy comes when shrubs are planted a bit farther apart and interplanted with shrubs or perennial flowers.
• Any planting will look fuller than it really is if you stagger the shrubs in a diamond design and avoid straight rows.