Planting tips

The following simple tips will help ensure that your new plants will thrive for years to come. See detailed instructions below, with a bonus illustration (by our staff Jon Wagner) on how to plant bare-root plants!

Care Prior to Planting

On the Day You Buy Them

Your new plants need moisture and nutrients right away.  For best results, plant them right when you get home.

If you need to delay planting for a few days, it is very important to keep the roots moist and cold.  The plants will also stay dormant (asleep) longer, and have a better chance of surviving, if they are kept in the dark.

There are several ways to do this:

  • Find a shady spot in your yard and dig a hole big enough for all the roots.  Lay the plants down on the ground with their roots in the hole, and cover the roots completely with soil (from your yard - not potting soil) and/or sawdust.  Wet the pile thoroughly.  Add more soil or sawdust until the roots are totally buried.
  • Put them in a bucket, fill the bucket with sawdust or dirt from your yard until the roots are covered, and wet the dirt or sawdust thoroughly.  Add more dirt or sawdust if needed to cover the roots completely.  Store the bucket of plants in a cold, dark place like an unheated shed or garage.
  • Remember that native plants are adapted to native weather.  As long as the roots are protected in wet soil or sawdust, it is ok if the plants get snowed on.  

Site Preparation

  • Select planting location according to the light and water needs for each plant.
  • Clear away all loose materials, such as leaves, rocks, and branches.
  • Dig a hole twice as wide and deep as the mass of roots.
  • Discard any clumps of grass, weeds, or other plant roots you dig up. (If you encounter large roots - more than 1/2" in diameter - try to leave them if you can.  Otherwise you may damage nearby large trees or shrubs).
  • Pile clean soil in a cleared area next to the hole. 
  • If it has not rained recently or the soil seems dry, fill the hole with water and let drain.
  • Roughen the sides of the hole so the roots have cracks to grow into.  This matters most if you have heavy clay soils - if your soil is slick, sticky, and holds large clumps easily. 

Plant Preparation

The plants you purchased will be either bare-root, or in small pots or plugs.  Here is how you plant both kinds:
  • Bare-root plants
    • Keep the roots moist until planting by storing them in moist soil.  You can also soak them in water for 1-2 hours prior to planting (but never longer than 6 hours).
    • Remove any damaged roots with sharp pruners.
    • Place a small mound of existing soil in the bottom of the hole.
    • Spread roots evenly around the soil mound.
    • Place the plant in the hole so the very top roots are level with the soil surface. This is also called the root flare, or collar.
    • Cover roots, filling the spaces between the roots with soil, up to the root flare or collar. Be sure the top roots are covered, but do not pile soil around the stem above the roots.
  • Potted Plants or Plugs
    • Ensure the soil in the pot is moist.  Tip the pot on its side and gently squeeze the sides to loosen the soil.  Hold the plant by the base of the stem and gently wiggle/tug/slide the pot off the roots.
    • The roots will likely be in the shape of the pot. Tug the outside roots gently to loosen them and get them pointing out and down in a more natural shape.
    • Some roots might be going in a circle around the outside of the root mass.  Do not leave them like this because they can cause the plant to grow poorly or eventually die. Pull them out and away from the plant, or cut them if necessary. 
    • Place plant in hole. Arrange loose roots so they point outward.
    • Keep the top of the potting soil level with the ground around the hole.  The plant is as deep as it wants to be - do not pile more soil around the stem.

Replacing the Soil

  • Once your plant is in position, slowly add the soil back into the hole.  Sprinkle the soil evenly around and among the roots to make sure the roots are supported in their natural shape. You may need to crumble larger chunks of dirt into small pieces, especially in clay soils.
  • Put only soil back into the hole - no large rocks, sticks, clumps of grass, sawdust, or leaves.
  • Do not add any fertilizer or compost to the planting hole - native plants do not need extra nutrients, and some can even be harmed by too much fertilizer.
  • When the roots are totally covered, press down firmly on the filled hole to remove air pockets and give the roots good contact with the soil. 

Finishing Up

  • Water the plant immediately to settle the soil and close any air pockets. If you see any holes form, fill with more soil.
  • You can now add a thin layer of compost to the top of the soil if you wish.  It should be in a circle as wide as the roots, and not touching the stem.
  • Cover the bare soil and/or compost with a circle of mulch 2-3" deep, also not touching the stem.   
  • Make a ring of soil and/or mulch around the outside of the hole to capture water and and help it soak in over the roots.  This ring only needs to be 2-3" tall.