A Beginner’s Guide to Planting Trees and Shrubs in 6 Simple Steps

You can say we’re tree-huggers here at Go Buy Plants. We love trees and shrubs. Why? Because, unlike annuals, these perennial plants come back year after year with little effort on your part.

Trees and shrubs are an integral part of any landscape, adding height and texture to the garden. Shrubs and trees make excellent borders and cast shade, protecting other plants and providing habitats and food for birds and beneficial insects.

We think that trees and shrubs set any landscape apart from the rest. Anyone can grow annuals, but a tree? That takes dedication and patience. Shrubs and trees don’t give you immediate results like annual flowers, but trees and shrubs have lasting benefits for the environment (and they’re a better investment for your money).

Now, don’t be intimidated by planting trees—it’s not as simple as it looks, but it’s not difficult, either. Trees, like all plants, want to live and grow. As long as you do your part, you’ll be rewarded with a robust and reliable plant that will look lovely for generations.

In this guide, we'll cover all of your questions about planting trees and shrubs, including when and where to plant trees and shrubs, as well as discuss ongoing care to keep your plants looking beautiful.

When to plant trees and shrubs

When it comes to planting (no matter what you’re planting), timing is everything. Spring and fall are the best seasons to plant perennials since hot summertime temperatures and long, dry days put undue stress on transplants. These shoulder seasons—before the plants bud out and after leaf drop—are also an ideal time to plant shrubs and trees since the plants are dormant at this time.

If you can, glance at the forecast before you plant and aim to transplant your perennials on overcast days followed by rain. This gives the plants a window of time to focus on root development and adjust to a new environment without the added stress of transplant shock. Avoid planting during the heat of summer or during winter when the ground is frozen.

At Go Buy Plants, we recommend that you transplant your plants soon after they arrive in the mail. Immediately following arrival, allow the plants to rest in the shade before planting them in their new home. Don’t worry if the leaves are wilted when you pull them out of the box—after thoroughly watering the plant and allowing it to rest, it will perk up.

Where to plant shrubs and trees

Before you start digging up your yard, knowing where to plant your perennials is essential. Different plants prefer different soil types, so choosing the right location is critical based on the plants’ needs and your native soil type. You’ll also want to consider other plants’ lighting needs when planning your perennial garden.

Unlike most annual vegetables and flowers that require full sun to bloom and produce fruit, many perennials can tolerate partial sun—some even prefer it. Do your research on the species and observe the landscape during different times of the year because your yard will receive varying amounts of sun and shade during different seasons. Make sure to match each species with a placement that gets the appropriate sun and shade.

How to plant trees

Planting anything is a bit of art and science, and planting trees and shrubs are no different. The following planting instructions are for trees, but you would plant shrubs similarly. The main goal here is to line up the base of the plant with the surface of the soil so that the plant is neither too shallow nor too deep.

  1. Dig a hole

  2. To ensure the health and survival of your trees, it's crucial to dig the hole to the correct depth. Typically, the hole should be two to three times the width of the root ball and only a little deeper than the root ball. It's important not to plant your trees too deep, and it’s a common misconception that the deeper, the better when planting trees.

  3. Place the tree
  4. After digging the hole, use a shovel to loosen up the soil at the bottom. Gently lower the root ball into the hole, noting the trunk flare—the point where the trunk gets a little larger near the tree's base. 

  5. Fill the hole

  6. Have someone help you by holding the tree in place while you backfill the hole, or you can control the trunk with one hand while you scoop soil with the other. Ensure the root flare is at surface level, and gently press down the soil to hold the tree in place.

  7. Water

  8. After planting, it's essential to give the new transplants a good watering. Newly transplanted plants need more water than established ones, so keep an eye on them for the first few weeks.

  9. Stake if necessary

  10. Staking with two or three posts is a common way to train trees to grow straight, but it isn’t an essential step. In fact, many professional arborists believe that improperly staking trees can weaken trees in the long run.

    Staking can be beneficial in windy areas or places where trees are at risk for damage, including high-use urban regions. If stakes are used, Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott from the University of Washington recommends placing stakes no higher than two-thirds the tree's height, using flexible materials to tie the tree to the stakes. Chalker-Scott encourages the removal of all staking material after roots have been established.

  11. Mulch if desired

  12. After watering and staking, wrap up tree planting with mulching. Mulching isn’t as simple as heaping wood chips at the base of a tree—just as with staking and pruning, there is a right and a wrong way to mulch.

    Mulching benefits trees in several ways, including suppressing weeds, retaining moisture, and insulating plant roots against extreme heat and cold temperatures. Proper mulching mimics the forest floor, creating an ideal environment for trees and shrubs. In fact, an article by Penn State Extension explains that mulching with organic mulches improves soil texture and composition over time.

    You can mulch as large an area as you want—it's common practice to mulch a circular area as wide as the tree’s canopy. Article author David R. Jackson cautions against mulching too thickly, as excess mulch can damage the tree’s root systems.

    Try to keep the mulch layer between two and four inches, and pull away any mulch around the trunk flare, allowing the tree to breathe at its base.

Ongoing care of trees and shrubs

Sure, trees and shrubs don’t require as much ongoing care as annual plants, but they do require some maintenance. Most plants need an inch of water a week, and shrubs are no different, at least initially. Once trees are established, rain may be frequent enough to sustain trees and perennials, except for a lingering dry spell or heat wave.

Trees and shrubs, like perennials, will need regular pruning as well. Don’t heavily prune until after the first season of growth, but you may need to lightly prune away any damaged branches initially.

An article published by the University of Maryland Extension does not recommend fertilizing trees and shrubs at planting time. In fact, the author Raymond Bosmans makes the claim that “In most landscapes, healthy trees and shrubs do not require fertilizers, especially when they reach their mature size.”

Bosmans’ reasoning is that excess nitrogen suppresses root growth, promotes leggy vegetative growth instead, and too much of any kind of fertilizer can burn plant roots. Overfertilization also has environmental effects, including being washed into rivers and lakes and polluting groundwater.

Healthy soils may not need fertilizer to support trees and perennials unless there is a nutrient deficiency. If that’s the case, amend the soil prior to planting, or wait until the second season to fertilize plants. Many perennials and shrubs prefer average to poor soil anyway.

When planting shrubs and trees, remember to choose the right time and location, dig the correct depth, and give your plants the proper care and maintenance they need. Regular watering, proper pruning, and minimal, mindful fertilization are just a few of the tasks that will help keep your plants healthy and thriving.

Now’s the time to plant shrubs and trees, so shop our selection today, or you’ll have to wait another season to add these beauties to your landscape.