Success with planting trees starts and ends with the roots

Now is a busy time for nursery workers as they cut and lift trees, with their root balls intact, out of the ground. These trees are called a “balled and burlap” (or B&B) tree. Trees are also available as bare root, potted, container grown or balled and potted. (Curtis Swift photo/Courtesy of Colorado State University Extension)



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Now is a busy time for nursery workers as they cut and lift trees, with their root balls intact, out of the ground. These trees are called a “balled and burlap” (or B&B) tree. Trees are also available as bare root, potted, container grown or balled and potted. (Curtis Swift photo/Courtesy of Colorado State University Extension)

Dr. Curtis Swift is a horticultural expert with the Tri River Area Extension office.



Curtis Swift cutout

Dr. Curtis Swift is a horticultural expert with the Tri River Area Extension office.

I know spring is finally here when I see Valley Grown Nursery’s crew digging trees in their fields in Mack.

Digging trees is not a job you want to attempt without the proper equipment as each root ball can weigh hundreds of pounds.

Valley Grown Nursery cuts and lifts each root ball out of the ground with a tree spade, carefully sets the root ball into a burlap-lined wire basket and then tightly wraps the burlap with twine to create a nice package called a balled and burlapped or B&B tree. Even after the root ball is in its protective cocoon it needs to be moved with care. If the ball is dropped and it cracks open, roots dry out and die and the survival of the tree is at risk. This is especially true for evergreens. An evergreen with a broken ball is usually considered a dead tree. It might look great when it is planted but the tree, in most cases, dies within two years.

Trees are also available as bare root, potted, container grown, and balled and potted. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages. A bare root tree is shipped without soil around its roots and must be kept cold and its roots moist until planted. The roots are often wrapped in moist sphagnum peat moss. As long as they are planted while dormant, you should have real good success with survival. If you can’t get the plants in the ground in a timely manner, you could always pot them up and keep them to plant later. Placing these potted plants in the shade and keeping them moist to ensure the roots don’t dry is critical.

Potted trees and shrubs arrived in bare-root condition and planted in pots. Unlike container-grown trees and shrubs, potted trees and shrubs (referred to as potted stock in Colorado’s Nursery Act) lack the root growth necessary to keep the root ball from breaking apart when the plant is removed from the pot.  Most nurseries will not sell you potted plants until they have developed sufficient roots to classify them as container grown due in part to the difficulty most gardeners have in keeping the root ball intact when planting potted stock into their landscapes. In those instances where you buy potted stock you can still keep the root ball from breaking apart when you remove the pot if you follow these simple guidelines. Place the plant, pot and all in the hole you prepared. With the pot still in the hole, cut around the bottom off the pot and make several cuts up the side almost but not quite to the rim of the pot. Fill the hole with soil firming as you add it to hold the sides of the pot in place. You might consider watering the soil as you add it to the hole to help settle the soil and eliminate any large voids that might otherwise form.

Now complete the cuts at the rim of the pot and pull those sections of pot out of the hole.  This leaves the bottom of the pot under the plant in the hole but since roots are more horizontal than vertical leaving the bottom in place won’t be a problem.

Container-grown nursery stock by definition must have roots that fill the container before they can be sold under this name. Trees and shrubs that were recently potted will not have sufficient root growth to classify them as container-grown as the root ball will break apart when removed from the container. 

If you buy a container grown tree or shrub, it is critical to score the roots after removing the container. Container grown trees and shrubs have roots that encircle the root ball.  If not cut these roots will continue in that circular pattern and may encircle and strangle the plant. In the case of trees with large containers, I prefer to place the plant in the planting hole still in its pot and remove the sides of the container in the manner I described above. If the plant is small, I will remove the container and score the root ball prior to placing the plant in the planting hole.  Scoring is a term referring to cutting the roots. This is easily done by inserting a box cutter or utility knife an inch deep into the base of the root ball and pulling the knife to the top of the root ball cutting the roots in the process.  These vertical cuts should be made every three to four inches around the circumference of the root ball.

Balled and potted trees are trees dug out of the field, wrapped in burlap and placed in a pot. In some cases they aren’t even wrapped with burlap. Before buying such a tree or shrub, check to make sure it has roots. Years ago someone was selling balled and potted evergreens in the Grand Junction area that were created by pushing a branch into a pot of soil.

Container grown plants can be planted anytime — even during the winter — so they’re good choices when you decide in the middle of the summer to upgrade your landscape with new trees and shrubs.

In all cases make sure you set the plants with the upper-most structural roots no more than three inches below the soil surface. Some trees require being planted with even less soil over their roots.  Neglecting to consider planting depth when planting can result in the development of encircling and girdling roots that kill these woody plants. You can find out more about the proper planting depth of trees and shrubs by calling the CSU Extension office in Grand Junction at 970 244-1836.

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