How to Plant Trees, Shrubs, and Vines

Trees, shrubs, and vines form the background of your home's landscape. Without them, beds and borders would seem to float on a sea of grass. Trees, shrubs, and vines define the landscape, indicating its limits and breaking it up into separate parts.

Every yard needs more than just pretty flowers to make it complete. You'll want the grandeur of trees arching over overhead; shrubs provide privacy and protection; vines can fill in bare walls or fences. In this article, we'll show you how woody plants can fit into your landscape.
  • Choosing a Tree

    Trees, shrubs, and vines make up a vital part of the landscape, yet many people purchase them with no more thought that deciding what to eat for dinner that night. They go to the nursery, pick out a plant that looks interesting, and plant it where they think it looks good. Never for an instant do they consider its needs or its eventual size or shape. In this section, we'll talk about the different options to consider when choosing a tree, and also teach you how to navigate the nursery.

  • Planting a Tree

    While an annual can be a temporary planting, woody plants are another story. Most trees, shrubs, and vines should be considered permanent parts of your landscape. The real secret to success with plants is not taking meticulous care of them (which still helps, especially for the first few years), but also planting them in the right place at the start. In this section we'll help you understand the situation of soil type, drainage, and exposure that you're dealing with so it will be far easier to choose trees, shrubs, and vines that will adapt well to your yard's conditions.

  • Tree Planting Tips

    Learning about woody plants and their needs and taking into account the conditions in your yard are just the first steps in growing trees, shrubs, and vines. You also need to know how to plant them. Planting a tree, shrub, or vine properly is the most important step in growing it. If the plant gets off to a poor start, it might never recover enough to become a useful element of your landscape. Put extra effort into those first few hours of care, and your plant will have a long, healthy existence. The planting tips in this section will show you how.

  • Growing a Tree

    Once planted, shrubs, trees, and vines are permanent landscape features that need little care. As plants grow, their shapes change and they can complement even the biggest house. With each passing year, big trees grow more valuable, increasing the worth of your house and property. Yes, it's true that, once planted, trees need little encouragement to grow. However, if you want your plants to give the best performance, you do have to meet their needs. Careful fertilizing and mulching will ensure that your trees, shrubs, and vines look their best. We'll get down in the weeds in this section.

  • Caring for Trees

    Maintain your landscape throughout the years so that another generation may look upon the trees, shrubs, and vines that you planted. Caring for trees is not as much work as caring for a puppy, but they still do need you to look after them. There are the basics like making sure that your woody plants have enough food and water. Then, there are the slightly more complicated tasks like ensuring that your trees, shrubs, and vines are protected for winter. We'll give you a few tips in this section to help you best care for your trees.

  • Preventing Hazards

    You've been hearing how easy trees, shrubs, and vines are to grow and maintain. In the best of all possible worlds, it would be nice to just plant them and only reap the benefits of their growth. Unfortunately, that isn't always possible. Occasionally, things go wrong. More often than not, problems occur from accidents or natural phenomena beyond your control. Some damage to trees, shrubs, and vines may be prevented, as long as you're aware of the problem. Others seem to appear overnight and can't be stopped, but you can be prepared. In this section, we'll tackle the hazards that your trees, shrubs, and vines may encounter. With you alongside, doing what you can, your woody plants can live through some of the worst gardening calamities and thrive again.

  • Pruning Trees, Shrubs, and Vines

    Pruning is the element of growing trees that makes gardeners nervous. They never seem sure of what to prune, how much to prune, when to prune, how to prune, or even exactly what it means to prune. Pruning is one of the largest maintenance requests your woody plants will ask of you. The good news is that it's pretty easy to do, once you get the hang of it. Some gardeners even find the task so fun that they prune for decoration, rather than just the maintenance of trimming back the tree's growth. In this section, we'll teach you how to get a natural shape, or an ornate one, and define once and for all what pruning is all about. You'll even get to impress your friends by talking about the brilliant espalier that you did.

  • Planting and Maintaining Shrubs

    Shrubs are easy to maintain, but different than your standard perennial. You'll find out how to prepare roots before planting shrubs in the ground or in containers. We'll also show you which shrubs require significant pruning in order to thrive. This is especially true of some shrubs when first planted. This section also provides great ideas on how to use shrubs as design elements in your yard or garden. Because of the unique shapes and vertical and horizontal versatility of shrubs, you can really take advantage of woody plants for hiding unsightly areas of your house or yard. A well-designed shrub garden can help you to create privacy. Shrubs can even help you enhance the natural look of annuals and perennials. Learn how.

  • Planting and Maintaining Vines

    One of the greatest things about vines is that you can control them. Decide how tall, how wide, and how dense you want your plant to be, and we'll teach you how to achieve just the look you're going for, or even help you secure the amount of privacy you want to keep the neighbors' prying eyes out. You can also use vines to hide a chain-link fence or another eyesore that you've been trying to get rid of for years. Before you know it, that dead tree stump will be a colorful garden pillar. Use the suggestions in this section to make the right selections -- twining vines, vines with tendrils, or clinging vines -- based on the requirements you need.

  • Lots More Information

    Just when you thought there couldn't be more information on how to plant trees, shrubs, and vines, we find the sources to help you learn even more about this aspect of gardening.
Let's get started by choosing the right trees for your garden.

Choosing a Tree

The first step to choosing a tree is to decide what kind of tree you want. As can be expected, there are many tree varieties. We'll walk you through the difference between woody plants and flowering trees, and show you how to buy them.

Woody Plants

Woody plants, as opposed to herbaceous plants, build on their growth of previous years, becoming bigger and bigger with time. There is a limit of course -- a small shrub will never become a tall tree -- but most woody plants will continue to increase in size throughout their lives. Growth is modest, however, once they attain their full size.

When choosing a tree, be sure to consider its shape.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Trees, like this American Elm, spread out
to cover a vast amount of space.

The "full size" of any woody plant is a highly variable point. A tree growing in ideal conditions will become much larger than the same species growing in a spot for which it is poorly adapted. Protection from strong winds will also help woody plants attain a larger size, since branches are not as subject to breakage. In general, trees and shrubs grown in full sun will be much broader and fuller yet often not as tall. If the same species has to compete with other trees and shrubs (for instance, in a forest), it will often grow beyond its "maximum" height but have a narrow growth habit with fewer branches. Size and breadth are also dependent on the space available. A shrub that can reach ten feet in height and eight feet in diameter in an open space will reach less than half that if it is planted in a container, which restrains its roots.

Vines differ from other woody plants in that they adapt to the size of their support. A climbing plant may have the potential to reach 50 feet in height, but if it is growing on an eight-foot trellis, it won't get much higher than the trellis.

The ultimate size and shape of trees and shrubs can be controlled by pruning. Often, the plants in a moderate-size hedge would actually grow to become trees, but their growth can be maintained indefinitely by judicious trimming. To reduce your maintenance, try to choose plants that fit the space. You will still need to do some pruning, but annual hard pruning will not be necessary. For more information on pruning, check out Pruning Trees, Shrubs, and Vines, discussed in-depth later in this article.

When choosing a tree, consider the height it will reach.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Open growth trees, like this one, can grow very tall,
but let in light for smaller plants at the base.

For these and other reasons, the sizes given here are only approximate. If a tree is said to eventually attain a height of 50 to 60 feet, that is what it can be expected to reach within 20 to 30 years under average growing conditions. In general, most trees and shrubs grow larger much more quickly than people expect them to.

Some trees and shrubs are fast-growing: They can put on several feet of new growth a year. Fast-growers are ideal when quick results are desired. Most fast-growing woody plants, however, are also short-lived. You may be better off planting fast-growing trees and shrubs to quickly give your landscape the proper volume. At the same time, you can plant slower-growing but longer-lived plants that will one day comprise the backbone of your landscape after the short-lived plants are removed.

Trees and shrubs can be divided into groups based on different growth habits. Many trees and shrubs may have one growth habit when young and another when mature. Vines can be divided according to the way in which they climb and the kind of support they need. However, all vines can also be grown as ground covers. Just plant them in an open space with no objects to climb, and they will spread nicely. As soon as the vine finds a likely support, the plant will climb it.

Flowering Trees

Flowering trees can be one of the most memorable elements of the landscape. Fragrant flowering crab apples; frothy, aromatic fringe tree flowers; and weeping cherries dripping with pink blossoms can linger in the mind well after the flowers are gone.

A flowering tree provides a colorful canopy for your yard.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
A flowering tree provides a colorful canopy for your yard.

Flowering trees make excellent accents when planted alone; this is a good use for them on small lots. For larger areas, you can mass them or repeat them to define a straight or curved line. Many flowering trees offer all-season interest, with showy spring flowers, green or purple-bronze leaves in summer, vividly colored leaves in fall, and bright fruit or attractive bark in fall or winter.

Some Smaller Flowering Trees and Crab Apple Trees With Small Fruit

Crab apple

Hawthorn

Yellowwood

Palo verde

Flowering cherry

Flowering plum

Redbud

Dogwood

Star magnolia, other magnolias

Witch hazel

 American Masterpiece, American Salute, Christmas Holly,

Donald Wyman, Louisa*, M. sargentii, Weeping Candied Apple,
Spring Snow (no fruit), Camelot*, Cankerberry, Cinderella*,
Excaliber*, Guinevere*, Lancelot*, Snowdrift*

*Excellent choices for disease resistance

  • Flowering trees can be an excellent addition to a yard with few perennial flowers. In this case, pay particular attention to tree bark as you make your selections. Tree bark (silver, black, red, or green, either smooth or textured) can be beautiful and adds winter interest to your yard. Consider, for example, stewartia's peeling bark of gray, brown, orange, or red, as well as its creamy summer flowers and great fall color. The paperbark maple, with only small, early spring flowers, has glowing, rust-colored bark and leaves that light up orange and red in fall. Colorful fall fruits provide a feast for the eyes as well as for the birds to enjoy.

  • Choose a flowering tree over a shade tree for a small garden. Not only is the size right; you'll also get beautiful flowers as a bonus.

  • Trees that stay under 15 feet tall include the Spring Glory amelanchier, Crusader hawthorn, fringe tree, and Camelot crab apple.

  • Trees that stay between 15 and 30 feet in height include Autumn Brilliance amelanchier, redbuds, and kousa dogwoods.
Flowering trees add so much appeal to your landscaping design. Try these additional ideas when picking out the type of flowering tree you want for your yard.
  • Choose trees that cast light shade if you want to plant a flower garden beneath them. Some trees allow sunlight to filter down between open branches or small leaves. Small, weeping, or long-trunked trees allow light to reach the flowers from the side during the morning and afternoon. Some good choices for mixed flower beds include crab apples, flowering plums, flowering cherries, franklin tree, golden rain tree, and Japanese tree lilac. Among the shade trees, consider honey locusts, ironwood, and birches.

    Flowering trees create a naturally appealing canopy.
    ©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
    Flowering shrubs create a naturally
    appealing layer.

  • Choose trees that have wide crotch angles to avoid weak branches and ice damage. The crotch (or branch) angle measures the distance between the trunk and the base of the branch. An upright branch has a narrow crotch angle of less than 45 degrees. A sturdy, wide-angled branch has a 45- to 60-degree crotch angle.

  • The problem with branches that have narrow crotch angles, a common occurrence on trees like Bradford pears and plums, is that they are not well supported on the trunk. If coated with ice in a winter storm, they may split off. The narrow branching angle can also catch moisture and encourage diseases.

  • Another problem can arise when upright-growing branches with narrow crotch angles near the top of a young tree begin to grow as fast as the main trunk. Prune the branches back to keep the trunk taller and dominant. If allowed to continue in this way, the tree develops a split leader, two trunks growing side by side. In severe weather, the trunks can crack apart, and the tree may be finished for good.

  • Avoid planting large-fruited trees over patios and decks. Large crab apples, apples, pears, and other fruits and berries can mar the patio and furniture and make steps slippery. Sweet, ripe fruit can attract yellow jackets and other critters. Let large fruits look pretty from afar, where they can drop unheeded in mulch, lawn, or ground cover. For outdoor living areas, choose tree cultivars with small or persistent fruit that won't drop and cause a mess.

  • Buy flowering trees in the spring. Trees purchased in the fall have probably been sitting in the nursery lot all summer.

Flowering trees are a natural way to beautify the look of your yard during the time of the year when you spend the most leisure time outside.

Shopping: Nursery Versus Buying Mail-Order

Once you've studied the situation in your garden and have a good idea of the trees, shrubs, and vines you wish to purchase, it's time to go shopping. The question is where.

Most amateur gardeners look no further than local nurseries for their plants. These growers offer a wide variety of sizes of the most popular plants, and you can pick exactly the specimen you feel would look best on your property. Furthermore, nursery employees are usually very knowledgeable about which plants do best in your area. Don't hesitate to ask questions.

The main difficulty with local nurseries is a lack of choice. They tend to stick to the tried-and-true. If you are looking for a specific species or variety, the nursery may not be able to help you. If you live near a major urban center, you may find among the local nurseries a few that specialize in less common trees, shrubs, and vines. Those nurseries are good places to shop for more unusual varieties.

When buying trees, decide if you want to order from a nursery or by mail-order.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
When buying seedlings, mail-order houses and nurseries
each have advantages and disadvantages.

It may surprise novice gardeners to discover that many nurseries operate by mail order. Mail order is an excellent way to find particular species and varieties that are not available locally. Mail-order nurseries are generally reputable companies with many years of experience in serving customers.

But beware of those that seem to offer too much for your money. They often fail to mention the original size of the tree, which may be barely more than a rooted cutting, or they may offer seedlings of unproved value. When dealing with this sort of nursery, you may find the money you saved would have been better spent on a smaller number of larger or better-quality trees and shrubs bought from a more trustworthy source. With nurseries, as with any business, you get what you pay for.


Some mail-order nurseries are specialists. They may deal only in dwarf conifers, windbreaks, trees with variegated foliage, or some other specialized category. Their plants are often expensive (some of the offered plants are extremely rare and hard to multiply), but they are often the only source of many less common trees, shrubs, and vines. They usually offer a wide range of sizes. If you are looking for a rare but expensive plant, you might be willing to buy a smaller specimen and watch it grow. Whenever possible, try to buy from a mail-order nursery that is located in a climate similar to yours: The plants you buy will already be well-adapted to your growing conditions. If you can't buy from a nursery in a climate similar to yours give your new tree, shrub, or vine ample winter protection for its first season or so. When ordering outside of your area, spring is the best time. Plants ordered in fall, especially from Southern nurseries, may not go dormant in time for early autumn freezes in the North.


Be sure to check state regulations regarding plant purchases. You may find some plants cannot be sent to your area. Most citrus-producing states, for example, will not allow citrus produced in other states to be brought within their borders. You can import plants from foreign countries, but check first for information on importation permits and fees.

Now that you know what tree to choose, let's discuss what you need before you bring it home. Preparing to plant a tree is in the next section.

Planting a Tree

When we look at a tree or shrub, we generally only consider the aspects above ground: shape and size, leaf color, flowers, and the like. We rarely stop to think that at least half the plant -- its extensive root system -- is underground. The underground portion, more than anything else, determines whether the plant will thrive or fail.

The Soil Factor

Before you bring home the proper trees, shrubs, or vines for your yard, you must analyze the soil, water, and drainage conditions in your yard. You then must determine whether any changes should be made. It is always easier to do this before you begin planting. It's also less costly: You won't find yourself having to replace dead or dying plants.

Before planting a tree, analyze your soil carefully for your soil profile.

The soil your plants grow in serves many purposes.
Be sure to analyze your soil before purchasing any plant.

The soil in which your plant grows serves four basic purposes. It helps, through its structure, to hold the plant upright, and it supplies food, water, and air to the roots. Most soils are already capable of meeting these purposes and can be used with little amendment. Called loam soils, they contain a mixture of large and small soil particles plus abundant organic matter.

Some soils, however, may be extremely dense, with little air space between the particles. This type of soil, called clay, is made up of particles of rock so tiny and close together they allow little air circulation. Clay holds water well, sometimes perhaps too well. Sandy soil, on the other hand, contains larger particles of rock. Air is present in abundance in sandy soils, but water runs straight through. This creates dry growing conditions, even in a moist climate.

To determine which type of soil you have, squeeze some slightly moist soil in your hand. Clay soils will form a compact lump and retain their shape. Loam soils will form a ball but fall apart if poked at. Sandy soils won't hold their shape at all.

Both sandy and clay soils can be improved in the same way: by adding organic amendments. Add about one-third compost, well-rotted manure, or other organic matter, and mix carefully. Clay soils also require the addition of sand to open up air spaces. Use coarse sand in combination with organic matter, and incorporate both amendments thoroughly. Use of sand alone will do little to open a clay soil-and may make the situation worse. If possible, do this for the entire lot or at least the entire planting area. You don't want to create a single pocket of good soil surrounded by poor soil because your plant, as it grows, will want to send its roots further afield, beyond the original planting site.

Roots may be hesitant to leave the pocket of good soil to penetrate the surrounding inhospitable soil. It is also worthwhile before planting to test your soil's pH level. This is a measure of acidity and alkalinity. The pH scale runs from 1 to 14, with 7 being neutral. Anything above 7 is increasingly alkaline, anything below, increasingly acid. Most soils in North America fall in a pH range of 6 to 7, from slightly acid to neutral. This is ideal for most plants.

Garden centers and local Cooperative Extension offices usually offer an analysis service and will explain how to collect a soil sample. You can also buy a pH kit and do your own testing, but the results will be less specific than with a professional test.

If your soil is on the alkaline side (7 or above), consider either planting plants that tolerate alkaline soils or amending it with peat moss or sulfur. If your soil is very acid (below 5.5), try either planting acid-loving plants or adding ground limestone. The exact quantities of amendment needed to change your soil's pH to the one you want depends on a great many factors, notably its original pH and the type of amendment used. A professional soil analysis will indicate the exact amount.

Water makes up about 90 percent of the tissue in leafy plants. Woody plants have an advantage over perennial ones in that they generally have extensive root systems that reach down and out for great distances, often far beyond the circumference of the plant's branches. Thus, woody plants can seek out moisture and continue to grow even as other plants suffer from lack of water. But there are limits to this ability. Most woody plants prefer soils that are evenly moist, meaning soils that may dry out on the surface but remain slightly moist underground.

If your area is subject to regular or prolonged droughts, you should consider planting trees, shrubs, and vines that are naturally drought-tolerant. But even drought-tolerant plants don't appreciate extreme drought. You might want to consider installing an irrigation system to facilitate watering. Newly planted trees and shrubs will need extra care in watering since their root systems are quite limited, especially during the first year.

Some soils suffer from chronically poor drainage. They are spongy and moist at all times and may even be inundated for days on end. There are some woody plants that thrive in soggy soils, such as river birch, (Betula nigra) and sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). To expand your choices, it will be necessary to improve the drainage of your yard before you begin to plant.

When planting in hardpan soil, dig through the layers.

There are three levels of soil: the top and the
bottom are porous soil. The middle is hardpan soil.
Dig through these layers for planting.

There are several reasons why soils drain poorly. Often, their clay content is too high, a condition best improved by adding abundant organic matter and sand. Sometimes the soil is located in a depression or at the bottom of a slope. Other times the soil is simply too shallow. Shallow soils do not allow roots to grow downward and properly anchor the plant, and they may prevent excess water from draining away.

If your garden is underlaid with hardpan, a nearly impervious layer of clay about a foot beneath the soil's surface (a common problem in dry climates), you can solve the problem by breaking through the hardpan in several places and filling the resulting holes with porous soil. In many cases, however, the best solution for poorly drained soils is to install drainage tiles. You can also consider planting woody plants in raised beds or mounds to give them a few extra feet of soil in which to grow. This will provide enough well-draining soil for good air circulation, and the moister soil beneath will ensure that roots never lack water.

Sun, Shade, & Wind

Each plant in the wild fits perfectly into its own niche. Some trees rise high into the air, basking in the sun while being pummeled by harsh, drying winds, and they thrive under such conditions. At the feet of these tall trees, small trees and shrubs live in a different environment: no harsh wind and no brilliant sun. These plants trade abundant solar energy for protection from the elements.

The same pattern is repeated in your yard. Some parts are shady much of the day, others are sunny. Some parts are exposed to dominant winds, others are protected. These elements are in constant flux. As trees and shrubs grow, they modify the environment around them, creating more shade and a greater barrier against the wind.

Plants gather energy from sunlight. It would seem reasonable that most plants should grow faster and denser with full sun. But with nearby walls, fences, and trees, full sun is rare in the average backyard. Most "full sun" plants actually grow well enough with fewer than 12 hours of intense sunlight per day.

Most woody plants grow almost equally well in full sun or partial shade. Full sun tends to stimulate increased flowering and helps bring out more brilliant fall colors. Some protection from hot afternoon sun is good for even "full sun" plants.

In general, deciduous flowering shrubs and trees need the most light, broad-leaf evergreens the least. Silver- or gray-leaved plants are also avid sun lovers. Variegated plants generally prefer bright shade (ample light with little direct sun); they can burn in full sun. Most conifers grow best in partial shade to full sun, although a few, such as yews, do well in shady conditions as well. Most shade plants require some sunlight.

The best shade for most plants is dappled shade, which is sunlight piercing through the leaves of tall trees. Such shade provides good light all day while keeping out the burning effects of full sun. The least hospitable shade is that found to the north (to the south in the Southern Hemisphere) of walls and other structures with much dense vegetation nearby. The shade cast by dense conifers is also a challenge. In such places, sunlight can be cut out entirely, allowing only reflected light to reach the plants. Even so, there are trees, shrubs, and vines that will grow there.

Of all the exposures, an eastern one provides the most sun with the least burning rays. It offers bright morning sun for several hours per day, but it never becomes too hot. Western exposures offer a similar number of hours of sun, but the site will be much hotter. Southern exposures offer full sun for six hours or more a day, but the intense heat can be harmful to many plants. Northern exposures are the coolest of all, which is a major plus on hot summer days, but receive little direct sun. They are best reserved for foliage plants.

Mature conifers and broad-leaf evergreens create the deepest shade. They cut off sunlight for the entire year.

Consider a windbreak when planting trees, shrubs, and vines.

In sites with severe wind, a row of wind-resistant trees or shrubs,
known as a windbreak, may be needed for plants to thrive.

The form trees and shrubs take on will vary according to the light they receive. Full sun creates dense growth, with branches well-cloaked in foliage. Deepening shade will cause the plants to develop a lankier look, as if stretching for the light. Extra light can be brought into a shady spot by thinning out overhanging branches.

Strong winds can do severe damage to plants, especially during the winter months. As the wind blows through the leaves and buds, it dries the air, causing leaves to burn on the edges and flower buds to abort. The windier it is, the more damage cold temperatures will do: This is the "windchill factor" so well known to those who live in cold climates. Plants that are borderline hardy in a given zone should always be planted where they won't be affected by strong winds. The best protection from strong winds is offered by other plants. They buffer the wind rather than cut it off entirely.

Conifers and wind-resistant broad-leaf evergreens are the best choices for softening wind year-round, although even the leafless branches of deciduous trees are surprisingly efficient at buffering strong winds. Fencing can also help buffer winds.

You know what tree you want, and you know where to place it in your yard. Now, it's just a matter of digging a hole and placing it into the ground, right? Well, not exactly. We'll show you how to plant a tree in the next section.

Tree Planting Tips

Even if you're experienced at planting woody plants, it is worth reviewing planting techniques. Studies have shown that some former methods were not helpful, notably planting depth and soil improvement.

Have a layout plan when planting trees.

A well-conceived plan can bring intriguing results
when planting or transplanting trees.

The new rule in planting trees and shrubs is to dig a hole three times as wide as the root ball but no deeper. This is a major change compared with previous recommendations, which promoted deep digging before planting. The theory behind the new method is that roots should be resting on solid ground so they can support the plant's weight. Loose soil beneath the root ball causes it to sink too deeply into the ground, burying the crown of the plant. Don't improve the soil by adding amendments unless you are doing the same for the rest of the sector. Loosen the earth on the side of the hole as well. The goal is to produce a wide but shallow space with loose soil into which the roots can grow for many years to come.

Set the plant in the hole so that the soil line (a distinct mark at the base of the stem showing the point where the plant was originally covered in soil) is slightly above its previous level. In sandy soils, the plant can be placed level with its original mark. Do not plant too deeply.

Nurseries offer trees, shrubs, and vines in three basic forms: bare-root, balled-and-burlapped, and container. Each has its own requirements at planting time. Balled-and-burlapped and bare-root plants should be planted as soon as possible after purchase. Balled-and-burlapped trees often have excess soil over the crown, or root collar. Before planting, use your fingers to remove soil down to where the trunk flares out. Use this as the measuring point to determine proper planting depth.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary to thin one-third of the branches of trees after planting. It is certainly not recommended to cut back the main leader. If there are competing leaders, however, prune to remove all but one. Damaged branches or ones that grow at awkward angles can also be removed.

Shrubs and young trees can easily be transplanted from one part of the garden to another as long as care is taken to remove as large a root ball as possible. The general rule is to dig up one foot diameter of root mass for every inch of trunk, with trunk measurement starting six inches above the soil level. Transplanting is best done in early spring or in fall, when the plants are dormant. Flowering trees such as magnolias and silverbells are best planted or transplanted in spring; shade trees, in spring or fall. If you cannot transplant immediately (within the next few hours), make sure the root ball is covered with an old blanket or similar cover and watered thoroughly. The roots must never be allowed to burn in the sun.

During their first year of growth, newly planted trees, shrubs, and vines need to be watered more regularly than established plants. Water thoroughly, soaking the ground entirely, then let the soil nearly dry before watering again.

Here are some different methods for planting trees into the soil:

Bare-root Planting

This should only be carried out when the plant is dormant, usually in early spring.
  1. Trim off any broken or twisted roots.

    Trim off any broken or twisted roots when bare root planting

    These roots are broken.

  2. Spread roots evenly, setting the plant so the soil line is at the correct level.

    Set the roots.

    Set the plant.

  3. Work the soil in and around roots, firming carefully.

    Work in the soil.

    Work in the soil.

  4. Water slowly but thoroughly to settle the soil.

    Water to settle the soil.

    Water to settle the soil.

Balled-and-Burlapped Planting

Balled-and-burlapped and bare-root plants should be planted as soon as possible after purchase.
  1. Set the root ball in the hole and remove any ties or wire. Peel the burlap back from the main stem, crumbling the soil back if necessary to find the original soil line. If synthetic burlap has been used, remove it entirely. Adjust the depth as needed (slightly above the soil line for heavy soils, level with the soil line for sandy ones). Trim off any encircling roots.

    Peel back the burlap.

    Peel back the burlap.

  2. Fill in the hole bit by bit, firming the soil as you go.

    Fill in the hole.

    Fill in the hole.

  3. Cut off any excess burlap (none should be exposed after planting).

    Cut remaining burlap.

    Cut remaining burlap.

  4. Water thoroughly.

    Water.

    Water.

Container Planting

Transplant potted trees into the ground.
  1. Carefully remove the plant from its container, even if the pot is biodegradable.

    Remove the pot.

    Remove the pot.

  2. Loosen the roots, especially those that encircle the root ball, pruning them back if necessary. Shake off all excess potting medium -- it is lighter than existing soil and will dry more quickly.

    Loosen roots.
    ©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
    Loosen roots.

  3. Add soil gradually, firming it as you go.

    Add soil.

    Add soil.

  4. Water thoroughly.

    Water.

    Water the plant.

Building an Irrigation Basin

To ensure the quick establishment of a newly planted tree, shrub, or vine, make sure it is well-watered. To do so, build a catch basin of soil around the root ball. This will help direct rainfall or irrigation to the plant's roots rather than allowing it run off.

The soil basin keeps the plant well-watered.
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The catch basin keeps the plant well-watered.

Staking

Stake the plant carefully.

Stake the plant carefully.

Staking is the process of assisting the plant to keep itself upright and steady.

Here are some tips for staking:
  • After the plant is in the ground, stake carefully if it seems unstable. In most cases, two or three stakes set into the ground just outside the root ball will suffice.
  • Taller stakes may be necessary to support trees with thin trunks, especially bare-root stakings.

  • Staking is not recommended unless the tree is unstable or in a high-wide zone. Use ties made of an elastic material, such as old nylon hose or wide flat straps, that will not dig into the trunk.

  • Do not pull the ties too tightly. The stem should be able to move somewhat in the wind.

  • These stakes should be removed as soon as the plant is solidly anchored, usually within a year.
Your plant is in the ground, but how do you convince it to grow from a mere seedling into an adult tree?

The answer is time and patience. That's it? Surely, there's more.

There is. In the next section, we have some tips for growing a tree while you're waiting for it to be big enough to carve your initials on its trunk. Keep reading to learn about the best methods for growing both flowering and non-flowering trees.

Growing a Tree

It's easy to get started if you want to establish your own flowering trees. Just follow these guidelines to start the process.
  • Use spreaders on young fruit trees to correct narrow branch angles. Fruit trees are particularly prone to developing upright branches. They also grow tall and wild instead of slowing down to flower and fruit. Shifting them into a more productive mode begins with creating a wider branch angle.

  • When the tree is young and flexible, you can prop short struts in the gap between a shoot and the trunk to force the branch down into a better 45-degree angle. Slightly older branches can be tied to a stake or weight to pull them down into position. Once the branches mature enough to become firm and woody, you can remove the spreaders and the branches will stay in place.

    Depth is crucial when planting new trees.

    Depth is crucial when planting new trees.

  • Pull or cut off the burlap before covering the roots with soil when planting balled and burlapped stock. This simple bit of housekeeping can mean the difference between success and failure for the tree. Some trees are wrapped with synthetic burlap, which will not decay thus preventing the roots from growing free. Even natural-fiber burlap left around the roots can be slow to decay. It can wick moisture away from the young roots, a sure way to cause damage.

  • Carefully consider planting depth before digging the hole for a new tree. You should make the hole twice as wide as the root-ball but no deeper than it. Setting the ball on solid ground that has not been fluffed by tilling or shoveling provides a firm foundation. If the soil underneath settles or shifts, the tree can sit too deep in the ground.
If planting in heavy clay soil, you can plant high so that the top third to top half of the root-ball is above the soil surface. This allows some roots to get out of soggy, poorly aerated soil. Fill in around the exposed roots with good soil, and top with mulch.
  • Check the accuracy of your planting hole depth using a shovel handle. When you think the hole may be deep enough, set the root-ball inside. Lay the shovel handle across the top of the hole. It should be even with or slightly lower than the top of the root-ball.

  • Plant groups of flowering trees in beds. When growing in clusters or groves, flowering trees look spectacular in the landscape, much more so than isolated individual trees. There are other advantages to planting larger groupings of trees:

  • In poor soils, roots can grow freely through the entire amended bed.

  • You can water and fertilize the entire group at the same time.

  • The problem of mowing or trimming around the trunks is eliminated, saving time and damage to the bark.

  • You can plant a shade garden in the grove.

  • Plant ground covers beneath your trees if you don't want a sea of mulch under them. Ground covers become a carpet of greenery and prevent mowing complications and root competition that can plague trees planted in turf.
Fertilizing and Mulching

Like all living organisms, woody plants need various nutrients and minerals, but unlike animals they do not need to be "fed" on a regular basis. They draw what they need from the sun's rays, the air that surrounds them, and the soil in which they grow. In most cases, a single annual fertilization is sufficient, starting the year after planting. Fertilizer is best applied in spring or early summer. Avoid fertilizing woody plants in late summer or fall. They have to harden off at that time of year, and a late application of fertilizer may stimulate rapid, weak growth that will not overwinter well.

Nurseries offer a wide variety of fertilizers, including some specifically designed for woody plants. Choose a slow-release fertilizer, which will ensure that your plant's needs are met over a long period of time rather than all at once. Most organic fertilizers naturally liberate minerals slowly, making them excellent choices.

Fertilizer should be applied near the base of the plant to a foot  beyond the outer branches.

Fertilizer should be applied from near the base of the
plant to a foot or so beyond the spread of the outer branches.

Fertilizer should be applied evenly throughout the area covered by the plant's root system. The root system often stretches beyond the spread of the plant's branches, especially on established plants. As a rule of thumb, calculate that the roots reach at least 3 feet beyond the plant's branches.

Granular fertilizers are easy to apply either by hand or by spreader. Carefully follow the directions on the package; you can apply less fertilizer than recommended, but never more. Water thoroughly after application to carry the fertilizer to root level. In the case of large trees, especially those that have to compete with grass for minerals, professional arborists often drill into the ground beneath and around the tree's canopy and fill the holes with fertilizer. This ensures that the fertilizer reaches the tree's roots rather than being used by the grass above. Specially conceived fertilizer stakes do much the same and can be applied by punching them into the soil with a hammer.


In the wild, most woody plants grow with a deep layer of fallen leaves covering their soil and roots. This layer keeps the soil from overheating in summer or freezing too hard in winter. It also keeps the soil from drying out too much and reduces or prevents the growth of weeds. The leaves also keep grasses in check, so woody plants in natural settings almost never have to compete with grasses. For these reasons, it is well worth your time to cover the soil at the base of woody plants with an organic mulch.

Apply mulch over the entire root area of the plant.

Apply mulch over the entire root area of the plant.

Many materials can be used as a mulch: chopped autumn leaves, buckwheat hulls, wood chips, bark nuggets, garden compost, conifer needles, and the like. Any fresh materials, such as sawdust, manure, or grass clippings, should be allowed to compost for several months before use. In dry climates, spray dry mulches frequently with water to prevent them from becoming a fire hazard.


Applying Mulch

Apply mulch over the entire root area of the plant, if possible. The larger the area covered with mulch, the healthier the plant likely will be. A few inches of mulch is sufficient. Mulch is biodegradable: As it breaks down while feeding the plant, you will have to add more mulch on a regular basis.


Your trees are in good shape to begin growing, now it's important to care for your trees. We'll show you how to care for your trees, shrubs, and vines in the next section.

Caring for Trees

Woody plants are considerably easier to maintain than most landscape plants (such as annuals and perennials). In fact, once established, most need little care at all, especially if they are planted in fertile soil and their root zone is protected by mulch. Beyond an occasional pruning and fertilization, watering as needed, and replacing the mulch at their base, woody plants should thrive with little care on your part. But there are a few special pointers for specific cases that you may apply for even better performance.

Woody plants need water less frequently than other ornamental plants because of their deep or wide-spreading roots. When woody plants do need water, however, they require greater quantities of it at once. To water them efficiently, set the sprinkler or irrigation system at a relatively low pressure but leave it on for a longer period of time. As a result, the tree or shrub receives roughly the same amount of water as other plants, but slowly, soaking the root zone to a greater depth. Superficial waterings, such as those for lawns, do more harm than good to woody plants.

Exposure of woody plants to cold winter winds can cause problems due to desiccation, even among plants that are fully hardy. The damage is most evident in conifers and broad-leaf evergreens, which can turn brown by spring, especially on the side most exposed to winter winds. Damage to deciduous plants may be obvious only when they green up in spring. Leaf or flower bud damage can be seen by the dieback in different areas.

Exposure to cold can hurt woody plants and cause desiccation.

Exposure to cold can cause desiccation.

This damage is most easily prevented by making sure the plant does not lack water. If rain is lacking, keep watering throughout the autumn even though the plants appear dormant. If there is a mid-winter thaw, make sure the plant is well watered. This will help keep the flower and leaf buds supplied with moisture.

Woody plants of marginal hardiness or those grown beyond their normal hardiness zone will require special winter protection. Surround them with burlap or snow fencing (or a combination of both) to filter winds and help collect snow. Fill enclosures with straw or oak leaves packed around the stems. You can also use the branches of conifers to cover them, especially on sides exposed to dominant winds. Vines can be taken down from their trellis, tied together, laid on the ground, and covered with a thick mulch of leaves.

Trees and shrubs that bloom in spring are highly appreciated because they bring color to the garden so early in the season However, this also leaves their buds particularly susceptible to damage from late frosts. As long as the flower buds are dominant, little danger of damage exists. If frost threatens when the buds have begun to swell or open, turn on the sprinkler and set it so the plant is soaked from top to bottom overnight. This method works because moving water rarely freezes and, when it does, it actually gives off heat. Often, flowers entirely cloaked in ice will suffer little or no damage, while those subject to the same degree of frost alone will die.

Be careful: new spring buds are susceptible to frost.

Be careful: new spring buds are susceptible to frost.

Any tree extending much beyond the height of surrounding trees will be subject to lightning damage, especially if it is the only tall object in the vicinity. Damage can range from scarcely noticeable to severe, killing the tree outright. Since a large tree not only has considerable value but is also impossible to replace, you may want to consider protecting it with a lightning rod. Consult an arborist for recommendations and installation.

Some final tips for caring for your trees:

Once planted and established, a woody plant needs little care -- much less than most other plants. It has a few continuing needs to attend to, including mulching, feeding, watering, pest control, and pruning.
  • Wrap the trunk of thin-barked trees, most notably fruit trees, in winter to help keep the bark from splitting. Tree wraps and firmer plastic tree guards can also discourage rabbits and rodents from chewing on the bark and can prevent accidental damage from mowers.

  • Remove the tree wrap in the spring so it won't get too tight on the swelling trunk or provide a hiding place for pests.

  • Adjust how you water a young tree as it gets established. When it is first planted and for the following growing season, provide water directly on the planting site. You can allow a hose to trickle gently over the root-ball, making a shallow saucer of soil below the leafy canopy to keep the water from running off.

  • Once the tree is established enough for new roots to grow vigorously, use soaker hoses to water just outside the perimeter of the tree canopy. This will encourage the roots to spread outward, providing a stronger foundation for the tree.

  • Mulch the tree properly. Put a layer of bark mulch, wood chips, or compost from the drip line (below the perimeter of the branch canopy) to 4 inches from the trunk (not too close or problems can arise). Mulching will help eliminate weeds and keep the planting site moist. It also looks good and gives the landscape a polished feel.

  • Avoid excessively thick layers of mulch, which can limit soil aeration in heavy ground and cause roots to smother. Another problem occurs when thick heaps of mulch break down into rich organic matter. Shallow-rooted trees like maples can grow thick root mats in the mulch (which is not good), and some of those roots may start to girdle (which is even worse!). Shallow roots are also subject to excessive drying in summer.

  • Help prepare evergreen trees for dry winter weather by watering them more in the fall, especially when rainfall has been limited. It's also helpful to spray leaves with an antitranspirant coating, which limits evaporation from the foliage.

  • Don't plant salt-susceptible evergreens near the street in cold climates. Salt used for snow and ice control will splash up on the needles and drip into the soil. It won't be long before a thriving tree begins to brown out and then fail. Look for trees that can withstand salt spray. An example of a salt-susceptible evergreen is white pine. Some alternatives include sycamore maple, Austrian black pine, Japanese black pine, red mulberry, and sour gum.

  • Prevent summer spider mite attacks on your evergreens by spraying susceptible plants with a hose every day during hot, dry weather. If you're out watering the garden, turn the hose on the evergreen foliage as well. Water helps dislodge spider mites and discourage their multiplication, a great nontoxic preventative.
Your tree is well on its way to a healthy life full of growth. One of the things you need to prevent are environmental hazards. We'll give you some tips on the hazards you'll want to avoid in the next section.

Preventing Hazards

Most problems with trees, shrubs, and vines are not caused by insects or disease, but rather by an inappropriate environment. Spraying a chemical pesticide on a plant already suffering from one problem is more likely to finish it off than to cure it. Here are some tips to help you diagnose the environmental problems that might be affecting your tree.
 
Salt Toxicity

Spring is supposed to bring fresh new leaves and bright flowers, yet the opposite sometimes happens. Evergreens may show browning leaves or needles. On deciduous plants, new leaves may be yellowish, branches and twigs may die back, and growth is weak. Damage tends to be on one side of the plant rather than equally around the entire plant. In late summer, deciduous plants go into a dazzling display of color; except this occurs about a month too early. The problem is not a pest or disease, but salt damage from delicing salts.

Winter salts can hurt these plants.

Winter salts can hurt these plants.

Salt toxicity is common in areas where deicing salts are used in the winter. The worst damage occurs right where the salt is applied, such as on sidewalks or roads. However, salt spray -- stirred up from fast-moving vehicles -- can drift well away from the road and into your front yard.

The first step in controlling the problem is to stop using delicing salts yourself. Environmentally safe compounds are now available that, although more expensive than rock salt, are not harmful to plants. You can also use lawn fertilizer to melt accumulated ice. Since you cannot control what your city or town applies on nearby roads, hose down shrubs and trees near the road first thing in the spring. Also thoroughly water the ground at their feet so any salts will dissolve and be carried safely beyond the range of their roots. In areas where the problem is severe, consider planting a buffer zone of salt-resistant plants nearest the road. These plants will absorb the salt spray with little impact, protecting the plants inside your yard. Salt-tolerant plants need to be washed in the spring, as would other plants.

Runoff

Some areas seem chronically dry. Even when rainfall has been abundant, plants suffer from scorched and brown leaf margins, wilt frequently, and branches and twigs die back. This problem is frequent with newly planted trees and shrubs as well as on slopes and in clay soils. It is caused by not enough water reaching the roots.

New transplants dry out more quickly and need more water than established plants. When planting, leave a basin (a ring of raised soil) around the root ball for the first year or so. This will help hold the water in place so it can soak in.

Clay soils hold water readily when damp but are hard to remoisten once they dry. Try watering slowly -- you don't want the water to simply run off into another section of the garden -- over a long period of time (up to 24 hours) to make sure the root ball is thoroughly moistened.

These conifers suffer from drought.

These conifers suffer from drought.

Slopes often suffer from chronic drought problems. Trees and shrubs planted there can have a permanent ring of soil built around them to trap run-off, or the slope can be broken up with retaining walls. If the slope must be maintained as is, consider installing a separately controlled irrigation system for the affected sector.

Girdling

When established trees and shrubs stop growing after having done well for a long time, especially if the top branches die back and the leaves yellow and decrease in size, girdling is a possible cause. The roots of the plant wrap completely around the base, in effect, choking itself to death. Usually, the root is hidden from sight, and the cause of the problem is discovered only when the plant dies and is removed. Sometimes you can see the girdling root at the surface.

This problem can be prevented at planting time by removing or straightening any encircling roots. These types of roots are especially prevalent with container-grown plants. They should always be carefully inspected at planting time. A girdling root on an established plant, especially a large tree, can be difficult to remove and requires the assistance of an experienced arborist.

Soil Compaction

If slowly over a period of years growth is poor, leaves are yellowed, and dieback occurs, there could be many different causes. However, if various species all seem to be suffering from the same problem in the same spot, the likely problem is soil compaction. This problem is especially frequent after a new construction, such as a swimming pool or a building extension, is added to an established yard. Try pushing a bamboo stake into the ground at the spots where you suspect compaction might be occurring. If this is difficult or impossible to do, the soil is seriously compacted.

Compaction is difficult to correct around established plants, although verticutting or aerating may loosen up the soil in the surface area if that is where compaction has occurred. Machines can be rented or lawn specialists hired to do the job. Both verticutting and aerating will damage surface roots, but compaction is worse. If the plant is healthy, it will grow new roots.

It is better to prevent compaction by making sure the soil is well loosened at planting time. Thereafter, whenever heavy vehicles or machinery are used in the yard, make sure that a predetermined path is followed and that trees and shrubs requiring special protection are roped off. Do not allow constructors to pile soil or debris over the root area of plants, even for a short time. Such materials should always be carried off site.

Winter Injury

Several types of winter injury can occur. The most common is due to the drying effects of cold winds (wind-burn). It is especially obvious on needled and broad-leaf evergreens. Windburn is best prevented by planting susceptible plants in a protected area. Another option is to set up burlap barriers to the windward side of these plants for the winter months. The problem can become worse if the plants do not receive generous amounts of water throughout the fall and winter seasons. If windburn is a recurring problem, try planting a windbreak.

Vertical cracks may form on the south side (north side in the Southern Hemisphere) of a trunk or branch in winter, especially on trees or shrubs with thin bark. These cracks provide a path for diseases and insects. The cause is sunscald: The bark heats up on a warm winter's day and freezes rapidly at night. Sunscald can be prevented by whitewashing the bark, which was formerly a popular treatment but not particularly aesthetic. Wrapping the trunk in a protective covering for the winter is another form of protection. Special spiral tubes are sold for this purpose (they also prevent damage by rodents), but simple aluminum foil is also effective.

Animals

Many animals can do much harm to your plants. Rodents such as field mice and voles are especially problematic in winter. They tunnel under the snow or through mulch or tall grass and nibble on soft young bark, especially the bark of fruit trees. Wrapping the trunk in 1/4-inch mesh hardware cloth or a commercial trunk protector will keep them away. Rabbits and hares nibble on tender buds in winter, causing setbacks and aesthetic damage to shrubs and young trees, but rarely permanent damage.

Although cute, this deer can wreck your tree's bark.

Although cute, this deer can wreck your tree's bark.

Only during severe winters will the animals do serious injury to bark. Special repellents are available to keep these animals away. Although they prefer vegetables and other more succulent meals, woodchucks and gophers will attack young woody plants if nothing else is available. The animals can be trapped and moved elsewhere, or plants can be protected by a tube of hardware cloth.

Deer are not as easily dissuaded and cause damage year-round. They are becoming increasingly common in suburban areas and are difficult to control. There are several commercial deer repellents. Although there have been several attempts to publish lists of plants deer do not like, they are often contradictory. Check with your county Cooperative Extension office to see if they have any suggestions for your area. The only truly effective deer repellant is an eight-foot-high fence.

Herbicides are made to eliminate plants. Not only can they damage or kill plants you want to get rid of but they can also harm plants you want to keep. Herbicides are of two types: selective, such as those used on lawns to kill broad-leaf weeds, and nonselective, such as those that kill all vegetation in driveways, sidewalks, patios, and the like. Either kind can harm woody plants if absorbed by the plant.

Always be extremely careful when applying such products. Apply only as recommended on the label. Heavy applications soak into the soil and can easily enter the roots. Avoid spraying on windy days or in extreme heat; herbicides can evaporate and travel to the foliage of nearby plants. Even "weed-and-feed" formulas can create fumes that are toxic to woody plants. The best rule is to put mulch underneath trees, shrubs, and vines so you will not need to apply pesticides.

Hopefully, your trees, shrubs, and vines are growing so abundantly that you need to prune them to keep them in shape. We'll show you how to prune in the next section.

Pruning Trees, Shrubs, and Vines

Perhaps no other aspect concerning trees, shrubs, and vines confuses amateur gardeners as much as pruning. When to prune? What to prune? How to do it? These are just a few of the questions asked.

When To Prune

When to prune depends on several factors, notably the species being grown and the reason you are pruning. Pruning can actually stimulate growth. Pruning back a weak branch in late winter or early spring will often cause the new growth that replaces it to grow much faster. To slow growth down, prune in early summer. These are the two basic principles of pruning, but there are numerous exceptions.

Pruning a conifer.

Prune conifers differently.

Trees and shrubs that bloom in spring (blooming on branches formed the previous year) are usually pruned immediately after they finish blooming. This stimulates greater flowering the next year. Those that bloom on new wood (usually summer-bloomers) can be left until the following spring. Most formal hedges can be pruned at any season, as needed. It is preferable not to prune at the very end of summer since this can produce new growth that will be susceptible to winter damage. Informal hedges are pruned after blooming.

There are two kinds of coniferous plants that require different types of pruning. The first are those that put out their entire year's new growth all at once, in late spring. This group includes pines, spruces, and firs. They can be pruned by removing up to two-thirds of the new growth while it is still fresh and pale green. Do not prune them back to old wood because they will not produce new shoots from those sections. Conifers that grow throughout the summer, such as yews, arborvitae, and junipers, are pruned once in early summer and again, if necessary, later in the season. They can also be pruned more heavily, down to old wood if necessary.

What To Prune

What to prune depends a great deal on the effect you want to create. There are major differences between the way to prune shrubs and the way to prune trees.

Except under rare circumstances, ornamental trees should be left to take their natural shape and appearance, resulting in little need for pruning. They are usually pruned only to remove damaged or diseased branches or ones that cross, rub together, or form an overly acute angle with the trunk.

Topping is not recommended.

Topping is not recommended.

Sometimes the upper limbs of overly dense shade trees can also be thinned to open them up, allowing more light to reach the garden below. Two other circumstances requiring pruning are when two leaders form (remove one) and when suckers (also called water sprouts) appear. Suckers are upright, unbranched sprouts that appear at the base of the tree or on the lower trunk.

Young trees should be pruned as little as possible at planting time because hormones released by leaf buds and newly emerging shoots stimulate the growth of new roots. Weak and damaged branches, however, can be removed. Once young trees are established, they can be pruned to remove weak growth and give them a better form. When the tree has attained a fair height, any lower branches that interfere with human movement can removed, preferably over a two- to three-year period.

One common pruning technique in tree pruning is topping, or heading. This is not recommended. Topping involves pruning back the large branches of deciduous trees in an indiscriminate fashion to change the tree's natural shape into that of a round ball. This causes all sorts of problems, including wounds that heal poorly, severe dieback, and increased danger of wind damage. It also destroys the tree's natural symmetry. The process must be repeated, since topped trees will grow back even more vigorously.


Different pruning techniques are used on shrubs, depending on the desired effect. Formal hedges, topiaries, and other closely clipped forms are sheared, which means all branches are clipped to the same length. Some shrubs that bloom on new wood are also sheared back annually to the base to encourage a maximum number of branches and thus more flowers. Subshrubs, which die back nearly to the ground anyway, should also be sheared back annually.

Shrubs that bloom on new wood can be sheared.

Shrubs that bloom on new wood can be sheared.

When a more natural shape is desired, shrubs are generally thinned. Older or excessively long branches and weaker secondary branches are removed down to a main branch or to the base of the plant. This allows room for younger branches to grow to their best advantage. Thinning is usually the preferred method for spring-flowering shrubs (those that bloom on old wood) and is done after the year's flowers have faded.

Spring-flowering shrubs should be thinned.

Spring-flowering shrubs should be thinned.

Even nicely formed shrubs may need pruning. If left on their own, some flowering shrubs will bloom heavily only one year out of every two because much of their energy will go into seed production. Unless the plant is also grown for either the edible or decorative nature of its fruit, it should also be deadheaded (pruning flower stalks off at their base). This will prevent seed formation and encourage better bloom. This is most often done with Ericaceous plants such as rhododendrons, azaleas, and mountain laurels.

Vines should be treated like shrubs. Those blooming on old wood (spring bloomers) should be pruned back after blooming, and those blooming on new wood (summer or fall bloomers) should be pruned back in late winter or early spring. Vines grown for their foliage often produce overly exuberant growth and need to be pruned regularly. They can be pruned back any time except late summer or early fall; pruning at that time of year can result in new growth that doesn't harden properly.

Large branches require a pruning saw and should be removed back to the trunk or a main branch. Cut neatly down to the collar (the ring of growth where one branch joins the trunk or another branch) without wounding it. Do not leave a stub, or the healing process will be long. For major branches, use the 3-cut method. Do not apply tree paint to wounds. Always sterilize pruning tools by dipping them in rubbing alcohol or other disinfectant between cuts. In most cases, major pruning on a large tree should be left to a professional arborist.

Always plant formal hedges so the base is wider than the top.

Always plant formal hedges so the base is wider than the top.

Special Effects

Most pruning and training is done strictly on a utilitarian basis: just enough to produce a healthy, attractive tree, shrub, or vine. But pruning can also be artistic, actually changing the shape of the plant according to human whim. Which type of pruning you prefer depends on your tastes. If you enjoy experimenting, you might want to try some ornamental pruning techniques.


Hedging is the most common form of ornamental pruning. Shrubs or small trees, often evergreens, are planted closely together--only one to two feet apart -- forming a wall or screen.

Informal hedges, usually planted with flowering shrubs, are the easiest to maintain; thin occasionally so new, healthy growth is produced. Formal hedges are trimmed into geometric shapes and require frequent shearing, often up to four times a year (less for conifers). The base of the hedge should be wider than the top, or the lower branches will be shaded out and die.

Trees used for pollarding must be able to survive harsh pruning.

Trees used for pollarding must be able to survive harsh pruning.

Topiaries take pruning one step further, turning shrubs into living sculptures. The plants can be pruned into animal shapes, geometric forms, or anything you want. Slow-growing but dense evergreen shrubs are the best choices for topiary.

Pleaching is accomplished by weaving and pruning trees and shrubs to form an arched tunnel. Two rows are planted with a wide path between them. When the plants reach the desired height, the tops are bent and woven together. This technique is usually applied on large estates.

Pollarding involves severely cutting branches back to the same point each year, usually on a large tree, forming pom-pom growths on the ends of thick branches. This technique has never been popular in North America, although it is widespread in continental Europe. Trees to be used for pollarding should be chosen with care since few species can survive such harsh pruning for long periods.

Espalier involves pruning small trees and shrubs into a two-dimensional form, usually against a wall or trellis. It can be geometric or free-form. Espalier can be used to give a formal look to your garden or, by training trees and shrubs up a south wall, to allow tender plants to grow in a hostile climate. Firethorn and fruit trees are frequent subjects for espalier.

Use the espalier technique to give a formal look to a garden.

Use the espalier technique to give a more
formal look to a garden. Or, as an excuse to say espalier.

How To Prune
Small branches can be pruned with pruning shears. Cut back to just 1/4-inch above a healthy side bud, at a 45
° angle.

Cut at a forty-five degree angle.

Cut at a forty-five degree angle.

Three-Cut Method
  1. Undercut the branch halfway through to prevent tearing.

  2. Cut from above, slightly beyond the first cut.

  3. Cut from above, parallel to the collar, to remove the stub.
We've talked about designing with shrubs and pruning them, in the next section we'll show you how to plant and maintain them.

Planting and Maintaining Shrubs

Once planted and established, woody plants need little care, much less than most plants. They do have a few continuing needs, however, including mulching, feeding, watering, pest control, and pruning. Consider the following tips for planting and maintaining shrubs:
Some Shrubs with Seasonal Blooms

The following shrubs bloom at certain times of year:

Spring: Azaleas, Rhododendrons, Ornamental quince, Cotoneaster, Forsythia, Fothergilla, Lilac, Viburnum

Summer: Butterfly bush, Scotch heather, Blue spirea, Summersweet, Hydrangea, Rose-of-Sharon, Saint-John's-
wort, Potentilla, Spirea

Fall: Butterfly bush, Rose-of-
Sharon, Witch hazel

  • Slice off circling or tangled roots before planting shrubs grown in containers. Potted shrubs fill the container
    with roots, which then twine around and around. New roots may continue this destructive pattern even when planted if the old circling roots are not removed. Eventually, the crown may be strangled by its own roots.

    Use a pair of sharp pruning shears to slice off circling roots and to loosen up dense, matted roots. Releasing the healthy roots inside the root-ball, planting the shrub in good soil, and keeping the soil moist will encourage vigorous new root growth.

  • Soak the roots of bare-root shrubs before planting. Bare-root shrubs are dug in fall or spring, washed
    clean of soil, and shipped directly to mail-order catalog customers. Shrubs commonly sold bare-root include Chinese abelia, bloodtwig dogwood, buttonbushes, viburnums, some forsythias, winterberry holly, and beauty bush, as well as hedge shrubs such as spirea.

    To ensure good results after planting, don't let the roots go into the soil dehydrated. An hour in a bucket of room-temperature water is all it takes. Plant immediately after soaking, and keep moist through the entire first growing season.

  • Score the sides of the planting hole to encourage root penetration. In clay soils, slick-sided holes can dry to a glaze that is difficult for young roots to penetrate. Slicing into the hole perimeter with your shovel breaks up the glazing and creates openings where roots can move out.

  • Thin out a third to a half of the branches of bare-root shrubs before planting. Your pruning shears will become one of your best planting tools, helping you put the shrub into a healthy balance before planting.

    When shrubs are dug from the nursery field and processed for shipping, they lose most of their feeding roots, the delicate young roots responsible for absorbing moisture. Until the shrub is replanted and reestablishes new feeding roots, it can't support all the growth it once did. Pruning reduces shoots to balance root loss.

    When pruning, begin by removing old, weak, damaged, or crowded branches at their bases. But don't indiscriminately shear off the top of the plant. The terminal buds on the branch tips release hormones that encourage root growth and maintain a slow, orderly pattern of growth. These are both desirable qualities worth preserving in your shrubs.
    Once established, woody plants need surprisingly little maintenance.

    Once established, woody plants need surprisingly little maintenance.

  • Deadhead hybrid rhododendrons and mountain laurels to increase next year's bloom. Once the flowers begin to fade, use your thumb and forefinger (or pruning shears) to cut off the soft, immature flowering cluster. Just be careful not to damage nearby buds or shoots, which will soon be sprouting into new branches.

  • Consider changing an overgrown shrub into a multistemmed tree. This works nicely with flowering plums, black haw viburnums, chastetree, and lilacs, all of which can grow to be 12 to 15 feet tall.

    Begin by removing small, crowded upright stems to reveal a handful of shapely mature branches that can serve as trunks. Remove side shoots from the trunks up to about 5 feet off the ground, creating a tree form. Continue pruning as needed to keep the trunks clear of growth.
    Some Shrubs with Fragrant Flowers
    Use these species if you're looking to add some fragrance to your yard:

    • Blue spiraea
    • Burkwood viburnum
    • Butterfly bush
    • Daphne
    • Dwarf Korean lilac
    • Fantasy lilac
    • Fothergilla
    • Fragrant snowball viburnum
    • French lilac
    • Korean spice viburnum
    • Miss Kim lilac
    • Summersweet
    • Witch hazel

  • Wrap boxwood and other broad-leaf evergreen shrubs with burlap to prevent winter burn. When the soil is frozen, the sun is bright, and the wind is strong, evergreens lose moisture from their exposed leaves
    and cannot replace the moisture through frozen roots. The foliage scorches to brown and the stems may die back, or even worse, the whole shrub may die. Burlap makes a coat for the shrub and ensures that you will have a nice-looking plant waiting for you when spring arrives. This also works for coniferous evergreens like arborvitae. Be sure to water these shrubs well in the
    fall so they'll have plenty of moisture stored.

  • Build a temporary wire frame around tender shrubs
    (the species most likely to suffer winter damage in
    your area) and fill it with straw or leaves for winter protection. Like padding a carton of valuables, this provides insulation from winter's worst cold.

  • Do not plant boxwood and other brittle-stem shrubs near the foundation of your house. Heavy, wet, melting snow or chunks of ice can slip off the roof and flatten shrubs residing below.

Designing with Shrubs

While you may think of shrubs as "just green bushes," they are actually much more. Shrubs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with many different types of foliage. Some shrubs produce berries, and others even provide fragrance! No matter what effect you are trying to achieve, there is undoubtedly a shrub that will fit the bill.

Creeping shrubs, like junipers, can serve as evergreen ground covers. Low, bushy shrubs like spirea and potentilla blend nicely into flower gardens or the front of a planting around the house. Larger, rounded shrubs can be grouped into clusters to define space or create privacy. More compact cultivars that mature when around 4 feet high, like Newport viburnum, can be used around a house without any pruning. Taller shrubs, like Allegheny viburnum, are best kept at some distance from the house where they won't block the views. They make good screens for the property perimeter.

Shrubs can accentuate the design of your pathways.

Shrubs can accentuate the design of your pathways.

Vertical shrubs that are shaped like an upright cone or pillar, such as Skyrocket juniper, create formality or emphasis in the yard. They can be striking when placed on either side of a doorway or garden gate.

Using a medley of shrub shapes creates design interest that goes much deeper than the leaves and flowers. And when you also take into account the other qualities shrubs have to offer, you'll see that they are an asset to any kind of garden. Here are some tips to help you get what you're looking for from shrubs:

  • Plant fragrant flowered shrubs near doors or windows so you can enjoy their perfume both indoors and out.

  • Cut flowering stems from your shrubs and bring them indoors to use in big bouquets. If you have large vases that dwarf ordinary annual or perennial stems, fill them with long branches of forsythia, lilac, or viburnum. What a wonderful way to celebrate spring!

  • Plant shrubs that will flower in succession through the growing season. Get some spring, summer, and fall bloomers; then play them up, using other plants as supporting characters. Match the flower color of a viburnum with a cluster of daffodils. Echo the color of an azalea with a pot of pink pansies.

  • Plant a coniferous shrub garden for winter fun. Use evergreens with a variety of different shapes and leaf colors: gold, blue, gray, and green. In northern climates where winter is long, this kind of planting brightens the garden.

    Suitable shrubs include dwarf firs, pines, hemlocks, spruces, heathers, junipers, arborvitaes, and false cypresses. Specialty nurseries and catalogs abound with other, less common conifers as well. Interplant cone-shape and vertical evergreens with low and mounded forms. Add some spectacular weeping conifers for excitement, and contrast blue and gray foliage against green and gold. In summer, add some annuals, perennials, and ornamental grasses for variety.
Shrubs in Containers
Any hardy shrub you find growing in a container at the garden center can continue life as a container plant on your terrace, deck, or doorstep.

Use a larger container with additional potting soil of the type preferred by the plant. Set the plant and its container in the right amount of sun or shade. In cold climates, use frostproof containers such as redwood or plastic.

Avoid terra-cotta, which can crack if the soil freezes. Other factors to keep in mind are the size and density of the shrub and its appearance at different times of the year.

Need a little height to your landscaping? Look no further than the next section for tips on planting vines in your garden.

Planting and Maintaining Vines

Climbing plants are ideal for landscaping because you can effectively plan for and limit their size. Their eventual heights and widths are determined by the structures on which they are grown. The structures themselves fill the space before the vines or climbers have reached full growth.

Be careful not to let vines escape their bounds by climbing into nearby trees. Clinging vines can damage the house structure by working their roots into the mortar, if it is weak. It's better to train vines up trellises set about a foot away from the house.

Vines can provide a beautiful layer of ground cover for your yard.

Vines can provide a beautiful layer of ground cover for your yard.

There are many different kinds of vines, and they climb in different ways:

  • Twining vines need something to twist around. The new growth twists onto supports as it grows. Sturdy poles and pergolas make good supports. Examples are kiwi, bougainvillea, American bittersweet, morning glory, honeysuckle, American wisteria, and black-eyed Susan vine. All of these can grow prodigiously in a single season.

  • Vines with tendrils need slender strings, wires, or narrow supports to grasp onto. Examples are clematis, passionflower, and grape. They are easy to train, but do not let them start climbing into trees. They can be used to beautify chain-link fences but need additional wires or trellising to grow on wooden fences.

  • Clinging vines stick to solid objects. These vines work their aerial roots into the smallest of crevices in solid walls. They can damage some kinds of walls, especially brick walls with old mortar that is beginning to weaken, but are safe to grow if the wall is sound. Do not grow them on surfaces that need to be painted from time to time. Clinging vines are fine on other walls and sturdy supports. These vines include climbing hydrangea, trumpet creeper, and winter-creeper.

Designing with Vines

Flowers, foliage, or fruit make them spectacular vertical accents to train on a fence, trellis, or lamppost. As an added bonus, vines can hide unsightly eyesores, provide shade, and blend tree trunks, walls, and fences into the scenery with a patina of greenery. Use these tips to help you:

  • Add height to a perennial border with annual or perennial vines on wire cages, tepees, or scrims. When you want a dynamic high point for a flower garden, an upward-trained vine will be effective throughout the growing season and sometimes beyond. In contrast, many of the tallest perennials reach their maximum height only when in flower, which may last for just a few weeks. Here are some support options to consider:

    Wire cages: These work like tomato cages but can be made from wire mesh in any height or shape. A narrow, upright pillar shape is elegant in a formal garden.

    Tepees: Make a support of angled posts tied together at the top. Plant one or several vines at the base and let them twine up and fill out to cover the post.

    Scrims: These are open-structured, see-through supports that vines can climb and still provide a veiled view of the scene beyond. With imagination, scrims can be made of braided wire or other creative materials.

  • Try an extra-easy way to support annual vines with a trellis made from biodegradable twine. Set two 4-foot-high posts about 4 feet apart, pounding their bases about 10 inches deep into the ground. Run the twine between the posts, knotting it around the posts occasionally to keep the twine from slipping down. You may want to make vertical webbing by working the twine up and down between horizontal strands, which helps some vines climb more efficiently.
    Plant annual vines such as sweet peas, cardinal climbers, or black-eyed Susan beneath the new trellis, and allow them to grow and cover it. When frost arrives or the vines begin to look shabby, simply cut off the twine trellis and throw it, vines and all, in the compost pile.

  • Create summer shade on a porch with a string trellis covered with vines. String trellises, available from garden centers or mail-order garden catalogs, can be hung from a roof or held upright with posts. Set the trellis to the south or west side of the porch to block the most sun.

  • Use a wire trellis and vines to cover a blank, dull wall or a utility pipe. A trellis-covered wall comes to life with greenery. Just make sure the trellis is far enough away from the wall; a trellis snug against a wall is not good for either the building or the vines. If you are screening a utility pipe, be sure to leave access openings for maintenance.

    Decorative vines, such as this purple clematis, can be trained to climb fences and trellises.

    Decorative vines, such as this purple clematis,
    can be trained to climb fences and trellises.

  • Use vines to cover a chain-link fence or other backyard eyesore. Vines can screen off your garage (or your neighbor's garage) from view, make a hidden alcove for your garbage cans, or cover a bare tree trunk or a fenced dog run. Remember to plant vines that twine or have tendrils on open supports like chain-link fencing and vines that climb on solid supports like walls.

  • Use vines to make a dead tree disappear into a mass of blooms. Just as grapevines in the woods can cover trees and turn them into a dripping mass of green vines, an old stump can become a garden pillar.

    In mild climates, evergreen vines can provide reliable cover year-round. In cold climates, some evergreen vines can be more prone to dieback when temperatures really drop. Look for extra-hardy vines for this job.

  • Plant vines on an open pergola frame to create a cool, shaded retreat. A pergola is an arborlike structure with an overhead trellis that forms a garden roof. It can make a shady place to sit outside in summer and give the garden elegant architecture at the same time.

  • To fill out the roof with foliage and flowers, try planting vines that have abundant growth so they will be well able to go the distance needed. Some possibilities are wisteria, silver fleece vine, kiwi, hops, and grapes.

Use the tips outlined in this article to manipulate your trees, shrubbery, and vines into wonderfully ornate creations that your neighbors will envy at your next garden party. In the last section, we provide you with links to find out more information about gardening.

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