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Planting Around Tree Roots

Have you ever tried to cut through layers of maple roots to plant that groundcover or flowering shrub that you so diligently picked out? Have you ever found that after picking the perfect spot to plant that there is a four-inch diameter root in the middle of the hole? Well there is a better way to plant in the shade and it does not involve digging at all. After years of struggling with pick axes and shovels, I started planting on top of the soil.

The first step to my above-ground planting technique is to remove all debris from the planting area (i.e., leaves, sticks, old mulch). Next, lay down old newspaper in the planting area. This will help reduce weeds and prevent the old tree roots from invading your planting area until the new plants are established. It is best to water the newspaper to prevent the wind from blowing it away.

Now add pinebark mulch on top of the newspaper to the depth of the pots. If you’re using one gallon plants this would be about 6". The reason I use pinebark mulch is that it is not toxic to plant roots. Hardwood mulch or any mulch containing woody material will rob your plants of nutrients as it breaks down. Be careful not to pile the pine bark on the existing tree trunks. That would be an invitation for insects and diseases.

If your planting area is large, the pinebark can be acquired in bulk. It is sold by the cubic yard at landscape supply companies. A cubic yard is 27 cubic feet. If the area will be 6" deep, you can expect to cover 54 square feet per cubic yard. That same area would take 9 (3) cubic foot bags from your local garden center.

After the area is covered in bark the holes can be dug by hand. Remove the plants from the pots and pull at the roots if they are wrapped in circles. If the plants are very root bound cut from top to bottom with a knife or shovel. Place your new plant in the hole and backfill to the top of the root ball. Don't put any mulch on the top of the root ball. Everything that was above the roots in the container should still be seen.

Water the bark well to settle in the plants. A drip hose should be used for the first few weeks while the plants become established. It is hard to say how often to water because it depends on the time of the year and the amount of wind the area will receive. I like to run the drip hose for a couple of hours and then check by hand to see if the water has saturated the bark. Let the area become slightly dry before watering again. I have seen far more plants killed with too much, rather than not enough, water.

The pinebark has very little nutrient content and needs additional fertilizer. A slow release fertilizer is best. Slow release fertilizers have a coating that prevents all the nutrients from being released at once. This prevents the plants from being injured and your fertilizer money from being washed away. All garden centers have many different brands of fertilizers, so ask a sales person for a good slow release brand and follow the directions on the bag.

I have used this technique many times with great success. So put away the pick axe and the shovel and enjoy planting around the trees.

Jim Putnam is a registered Landscape Contractor in North Carolina and Owner of Earthworks Nursery

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