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Plant Installation Guidelines

Thursday February 25, 2010

spade in soil

Putting a plant in the ground seems likely a fairly simple process:  Dig a Hole then Drop it In!  At its crudest, it is just that.  But if you would like to ensure a healthy plant is the result of your labors, allotting a bit more time into preparation is vital.  Here is Landscape Resource's tried and true protocol to healthy plants and happy gardeners which applies to the majority of planting conditions found throughout California:


Lay out all Plants!  This is an essential step that is not to be skipped!  Place all of your plants on the ground where they will be located.  Before digging the holes, carefully look at each plant and visualize how large each plant will grow relative to one another.  The right plant, properly selected and properly placed, is the only way to start.

Pro Tip:  If you have many and/or heavy plants, no need to move them back and forth.  Rather, try grabbing a bag of flour from the kitchen.  Back in the garden, toss a large pinch of flour in the desired location of each plant.  If, during lay out, you realize your spacing or location is incorrect, simply kick some dirt over the flour and start again.  (Gypsum, corn meal, or other inexpensive organic material will work just fine.)

Dig the Hole.  Digging the right sized hole is critical.  The hole should be the depth of the plant's rootball, not the depth of the container (The containers are rarely filled to the brim with soil).  If the hole is dug deeper and loose soil placed at the bottom to bring the height up, the plant will often settle over time as the soil compacts.  Equally important, the hole should be 1.5 to 2x the width of the rootball.  This encourages the roots to begin to grow laterally as opposed to continue to grow in a circular pattern which is typical when roots encounter hard and smooth faces.

Pro Tip:  If you are working in heavy soils, scour or roughen the sides of the planting pit with a garden trowel or similar tool.  This will help encourage the roots to move outside of the planting pit.


Test for Percolation.  If your soil type is fairly uniform, fill one hole with water.  Monitor how long it takes to percolate, or be absorbed by the soil.  Well-draining soil will drop 1-2" per hour; heavy clay soils will take multiple hours to days to drop a few inches.  If you have heavy clay soils, first make sure the plants you have selected can tolerate those conditions.  Second, refer to specific backfill instructions.  Or, see more on Soil Testing.


Set the plant in the Hole.  Remove the plant from the container and place in hole.  During this step you are focused on ensuring the top of the rootball is ½"-1" above the adjacent soil level.  You plant a bit high because the plant will almost always settle and the stem should never be below grade.  This encourages rot and a whole host of problems.

Pro Tip:  Having trouble removing the plant from the container?  Set the container on its side, taking care not to damage the structure of the plant.  Lightly apply pressure on the side of the container and roll back and forth under foot.  This should allow the plant to pop right out of the container.  After removing the plant from the container, lightly massage the rootball to loosen the soil and prepare the plant for its new home. 

Backfill.  This is where the process gets a bit tricky.  Depending on who you ask, what you are planting, where you are planting, you are likely to get a wide variety of instruction.  To keep things simple, here is our preferred method:

1)  Standard Plant:  2/3 native soil, 1/3 organic soil amendment

2)  Native Plant:  No amendments necessary

3)  Cacti or Succulent:  1/3 native soil, 2/3 perlite & 3/8" washed gravel and/or sharp horticultural sand

4)  Palm:  2/3 washed plaster sand, 1/3 native soil

Install the backfill in 3-4" lifts and tamp the soil gently at each lift to remove any voids.


  Watering.  This is arguably one of the most important steps.  Regardless of plant type, any newly installed plant will need Water, Water, and more Water.  Within 30 minutes of installing the plant, we prefer to deeply soak the plant and backfill to the point of saturation.  After the water has been absorbed, check for depressions adjacent to the rootball.  If any are present, it means there were some voids below ground.  Simply tamp this area down even further and add soil as necessary.


Install Mulch.  No plant installation is complete without the installation of some type of mulch.  Mulch will keep your new plant cool, reduce evaporation, tidy up your garden bed, and most importantly, provide some protection against weeds.  Place 2-3" of mulch all around the plant.  Take care to keep mulch clear of the stem.  Mulch can be a wide variety of materials, ranging from tree chippings to gravel.


Note:  Every planting situation is unique and contains many variables:  soils, microclimate, exposure, and irrigation types are just a few.  If you have a hunch your situation requires something special, be sure to ring a local professional for assistance.  Start here in the Business Directory!