Tree planted too deep.

It’s February and the cold weather makes for tough gardening. But getting out there is half the battle. To celebrate Georgia Arbor Day on Feb. 18, consider finding time to plant a tree. 

There are many canopy trees that can be planted in deep shade, such as beech, northern red oak, and some hickories. These trees can be your garden’s next generation canopy.

There are some flowering trees, such as redbud, buckeye, and the south’s favorite tree, the dogwood, that tolerate a lot of shade, but like most any flowering plant they prefer just a bit of sun.  

I have planted a lot of trees and have made my share of mistakes, so I am going to share two important details to remember about preparing the root ball, a crucial part of the planting process.

Number 1: Find the root flare so that you can plant the tree at the right depth.  The root flare is the point where the trunk transitions into the roots and it should be level with the top of the hole. When in doubt, erring on the higher side is less risky for the tree’s survival.

With a containerized tree, you may have to remove some root mass that grows around the trunk of a tree or shrub, if it was planted too deep in the pot. It is better to remove or pull away those roots than plant too deep. I have seen trees planted more than 3 inches too deep in a pot and it is a sure way to slowly kill your tree if you plant it without finding that root flare first.

Tree with loosened roots.

Number 2.  Cut or unwind a circling root system. Roots of containerized trees often end up winding around the inside of the pot, and sometimes they even encircle the trunk. You end up with either a mass of roots that don’t expand beyond the root ball once it’s planted, or the circling roots actually choke the trunk and shorten its life.  

If your new baby is root-bound, try one of two following solutions.

Unravel and unwind those roots.  When you plant the tree, spread them out like rays (roots) leaving the sun (the trunk). When I plant trees for my own garden, I wash off the soil or soak in a tub of water to get all the soil off the ball to make roots easier to fan out. I have white oaks planted 20 years ago that are over 40 feet tall, and I am sure it is the result of this planting method.

Another easier and faster method is to make four vertical cuts (every 90°) from top to bottom of the root ball with a saw. The depth of the cuts depends on the size of the ball; 2 inches into a 15-gallon is about right. Make a crosscut at the bottom of the root ball and, if the bottom of the ball is solid roots, cut a 1/2” pancake off the bottom of the ball. 

Find that tree you have been looking for and get to planting. Happy Arbor Day!

What to plant

The secret of a green thumb is simply planting plants the right way in the right location.

Northern red oak (Quercus rubra)

Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) There is always room for another tree! If you think you have too much shade, this oak is the most shade tolerant. It is one of the best for a red to maroon fall color and remember the oak leaves feed over 500 species of caterpillar. Its bark has a light striping on a darker gray background that reminds many of ski slopes running down the tree. This unique pattern is both beautiful and a great way to identify the tree in any season.

Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) This is our first native tree to bloom in the year. It is in the legume or bean family and the white to pink flowers are edible, which can help make a pretty salad while adding a mild refreshing flavor. The tree can grow in deep shade but does best on the edge of a woodland or part shade with average, well-drained soil. Like all legumes, it fixes nitrogen in the soil, adding nutrients for the rest of your garden. There are many cultivars selected for leaf and flower color, weeping form, and even heat tolerance.

Native pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens)

Native pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens) I love this native groundcover, perfect for deep to light shade. There are none more beautiful.  It is evergreen with a larger leaf and a more fragrant flower than its Asian cousin, but it is a slower grower. Soil with average moisture, drainage, and nutrients will work as long as it gets enough shade, which means it is a great plant for the tree lover.. The biggest challenge is simply finding it in the nursery trade, but I promise it is worth the time.

Greg Levine

Greg Levine is Co-Executive Director & Chief Program Officer of Trees Atlanta.