|Put it where you want it. This old saw applies to woody plants in particular because they do not transplant as easily as perennials and are not replaced each season like annuals. Don’t presume that you know the ultimate size that a shrub or tree will become – read the label or ask the horticulturist where you shop. Then add a bit because most plants overperform in our part of the world. It’s important to provide enough space around woody plants for good air circulation and so each one can shine in its own way.
Think of new woodies as the babies in your garden – after all, they were grown in a nursery. Seriously, the first 2 years of a shrub or tree’s life in the garden will set them on the path to long life and beauty or shorten their lifespan considerably. When you plant, dig a hole deeper and wider than the plant’s pot and amend that native soil with some organic matter like compost and manure, old leaf mold, or ground bark. Add some soil conditioner like worm castings and a natural fertilizer. My theory is simple: feed the soil and then feed the plants. Deeper, healthier roots give stability to the plant and allow it to support strong stems, leaves, and flowers. Pay attention to water during the first summer. If it doesn’t rain, soak the youngsters weekly. If it rains a lot, add some fertilizer in June even if you never do that for other plants. Keep an eye on the planting site to be sure it does not sink or pull up out of the soil. If the soil sinks so that the base of the new tree or shrub is below ground level, consider replanting it. Dig up the sunken one, add planting soil if necessary, and replant slightly on the ‘high’ side now that you know that area is spongy. But if the newly planted tree or shrub is lifting out of the soil, perhaps exposing its roots at the surface, add more soil to the area and gently push the rootball down to help stabilize the situation. Maintain an inch or two of organic mulch around the base of the plant.
Raise adult plants. Just like I always tried to shape my children’s experiences in light of the fact that they would (and have) be grownups one day, I shape woody plants while they are young and pliable. In most cases, you are wise to prune off up to one third of the top growth of shrubs and trees at planting time. This is not mean – it is essential to curb transplant shock (although rooting hormone certainly helps) and to establish the form you want the plant to have as it grows. Don’t be afraid to prune new trees and shrubs – they will respond if you do it while they are young. I’ve seen too many parents that seem afraid to guide their children at an early age and find that it’s much harder later on. Similarly, the shrub that has too many branches on one side and not enough on the other cannot adjust that growth on its own. It’s depending on you to be the boss, so do it!