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3 Steps for Planting a Plant

It’s starting to warm up and our perennial plants are starting to bloom (or at least peak out of the soil!). This is my favorite time to add any new plants to my garden beds. And, since I’ve already gotten my garden ready for Spring, I’m in good shape to add some new plants.

Seedlings ready for planting and garden tools
Small plants to put in the soil

Planting in the spring is really helpful for plants so that they have enough time to get used to their new soil and start growing their roots so that they are well established before our Northern Virginia summer heat hits us. I like planting in March, when I’m pretty confident that there won’t be any more frost to try and maximize this time. Planting in April and, potentially, May can also work well.

It’s important to consider what plant is right for your garden. The amount of sunlight, the soil type, and our local area help determine which types of plants will likely work. Even after considering these things, I still have some plants that prefer different garden areas—the plant will ultimately tell me if it’s happy over time in the spot that I try. I have the best luck with native plants, and I prefer to use them for local sustainability reasons anyway.

There are a lot of online resources, but I always feel better chatting about my plant options with an expert at a local garden center. Earth Sangha is a great resource for those buying plants in the greater Prince William County area for local, native plants—I’ve found the team to be really knowledgeable. For information and help, the Native Plants for Northern Virginia Guide by the Virginia Cooperative Extention’s Master Gardener Program is also awesome! The Plant NOVA Natives also has a very helpful list of native-only sellers in our area.

Step 1: Prepare the planting hole, amend soil with compost

I dig a hole that is two times as wide and just slightly deeper than the root ball of what I’m trying to plant. I pull back my mulch for an area that is even wider than this so that I can put the soil from the hole right next to where I’m digging.

As I dig the hole, I remove any rocks or other debris that I find. In some of the garden beds by my house in the greater-Washington DC area, I’ve found flower pot pieces and old candy wrappers buried in the soil! I’ve found an enormous number of rocks in the gardens at our Balls Ford Road Compost Facility in Manassas, VA that were left over from the facility’s construction.

Once the hole is dug, I remove about 20-25% of the dirt that I pulled out. I then add 20-25% of a soil amendment (What is a soil amendment?) to the soil pile and mix it in. Since I work at a composting facility, I use our bulk, certified compost, which is available in compost bags or as bulk compost.

If it’s only a few plants, usually a bag of compost or a bucket refill (of compost) is enough for the job. If you’re doing a large garden, buying bulk compost may be cheaper. We have a bulk and bagged compost calculator to help you determine how much you need as well as a how to buy quality compost guide to help you buy a good compost. In some of my garden beds, my soil is already healthy. Therefore, I may add a smaller amount of compost when digging the hole.

Lastly, I loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole just a little bit and add a small amount of water. These two things will encourage the roots to grow downward. In the next step, I put a little bit of the mixed compost and soil before putting in the plant, so I don’t add compost to the hole itself right now—I want just a loose bit of ‘native’ or non-amended soil.

Step 2: Plant the plant

Now that I have gotten my hole ready, I’m going to get my plant ready for the soil. I gently push the sides of the container that the plant came in and gently pull it out, grabbing lightly on the plant’s stem where it just meets the soil. I also turn the container over or on its side.

Most plants will have a lot of roots that you can now see that are growing in a circle around the plant and/or crisscrossing at the bottom of the plant. Ideally, plant roots spread out in the soil so that the plant can get more water and nutrients. I think it’s important to stop this circular root growth in the soil.

For smaller plants, I typically make cuts in two or three places. First, I cut a tiny amount of the plant’s roots off the bottom. I want to get all of the root growth that is going sideways out. This way, I’m encouraging the plant’s roots to start growing down when it’s in the soil. I am probably only cutting ¼’’ or so.

Second, I will also cut a single line through the roots down the sides of the plant. Instead of the roots continuing to grow in a circle, I want to encourage them to start spreading out in the soil. This cut is just on the surface of the side—I’m not cutting deep into the soil of the root ball.

Third, from the bottom that I just cut off and with the plant upside down (in my hand), I’ll sometimes cut from the plant’s bottom towards the plant’s top (or leaves). I’ll do this two times, making an “x” with the two cuts. I’ll only make this cut if I think that it’s been in the container for a long time. Either way, I will hold the plant upright and tickle the bottom of the plant with my hands, trying to pull the roots apart a little bit. I’m gentle enough so that I’m not ripping the roots, and firm enough so that I’m getting them to loosen up.

For shrubs, I’d look for more detailed information online. I still use compost for these things, but how I prepare their roots could be different. For example, I may shake off the existing dirt as well as cut specific roots.

I was really nervous the first time I was making cuts to plant roots. I had just paid a lot of money for my plants and didn’t want to kill them before I even got them into the ground! I was lucky to be doing this first job with more experienced gardeners to reassure me that it was okay. If you’re not with others and are nervous, I’d err on the side of doing too little. Even a small bit will help.

Since the plant is now ready to go into the ground, I add a tiny bit of the soil / compost mixture that I made to the bottom of the hole and check that the plant is slightly above ground level. I then put the loose soil around the plant and push it down firmly around the plant.

I want the plant to be just slightly above or even with the existing garden soil at the end of this. If the plant and the filled-in hole is lower than the existing bed’s soil, I pull out the plant, add more soil at the bottom, and do it again. If the plant is too low, water could pool there and may harm the plant.

Step 3: Water, mulch, care

With the plant in the garden bed, I now give it a good watering and then put the mulch that I placed to the side back over the soil.

For native plants, I try to water them two times per week over the next two weeks to make sure that they have enough water to start growing. After that, I try to make sure that they get about an inch per week either from rain or my hose for the first season.

In future years, since they are native plants, I try to minimize how much I water them. They are native plants and should be able to just follow the local weather.

When buying the plant (Step 1), I also try to learn how I am supposed to care for the plant over time. Do I need to cut back the foliage in the spring, or what pruning is necessary? Are there any special soil conditions / watering needs that I should account for that are different from the other plants that I have? I then add any items to my spring and fall checklists.

That’s it! I always feel so good after planting new plants in my gardens. The visual change in the garden is particularly noticeable to me and I get a big smile. With three easy steps, I’ve now added new plants to my garden bed and set them up with the best chance for success.

About Freestate Farms' Compost & Mulch Facility

Freestate Farms makes premium landscaping products—compost, topsoil, and mulch—by recycling food and yard waste in Manassas, VA. Our composts, topsoil, and mulches are specially designed to increase the health and productivity of local soils, and with our focus on sustainable practices, this lets the environment and your garden Grow Good, together. We sell bulk compost, bagged compost, bulk natural mulches, bulk dyed mulches, bagged dyed mulches, and bulk topsoil.


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