Tons of articles—and books, as well—have been written about how to plant things properly. While I don’t want to belabor the point, there are a couple of very important things you should know before you set about planting or transplanting anything in order to increase your chances for success. After all, if you’re going to go through all the time and expense of acquiring new plants and putting them in the ground, you’d might as well take a few seconds to make sure you do it right.
Most of the plants you buy come in plastic containers. To remove small plants without damaging them, squeeze all around the container in order to loosen the soil from the container walls. Place your hand across the top of the pot with the plant’s stalk between your fingers, and turn the pot over. Shake it sharply until the plant falls out into your hand. For larger potted shrubs and trees, shake the plant out onto its side on the ground.
While the plant is out of the pot, examine the root system. It should look white and vigorous. You should see a combination of thick roots and finer feeder roots.
Now comes the part everybody fears. Taking your fingers or a sharp knife, poke holes into the root ball and pull some of the roots free. You want to open up the plant’s root ball to encourage new growth. Otherwise, the roots might tend to keep growing in circles, as they did in the round container, and the plant’s growth could be stunted.
Once you’ve loosened the roots, set the plant in the hole you’ve already dug for it—about 1-1/2 times the size of the original root ball. Make sure the crown of the plant (the part where the plant’s main stem meets the soil) is set no deeper than it was in the pot. Covering the crown with soil could damage or even kill the plant. Spread the roots out in the hole and begin backfilling with fresh potting or garden soil. You can use a general-purpose potting soil for most plants, although acid-loving plants such as azaelia, camellia, blueberry, etc., should have soil mixed with peat moss or other organic material to increase the soil’s acidity.
Once the hole is backfilled, make sure you tamp the new soil down firmly. This is very important. Some gardeners are hesitant to apply too much pressure to the soil for fear of damaging the plant’s roots; failing to tamp down well could result in trapped air pockets that could dry out the roots and kill the plant.
After you’ve tamped the soil down firmly, cover with wood chips, pine needles, stone, or some other type of mulch to hold the moisture in and water well with a dilute fertilizer solution or mulch tea, being careful not to wash the soil away from the plant. The mulch will help the soil retain moisture, even during periods of drought.