When buying from a local nursery, select bare-root shrubs or trees with strong stems, avoid any that have already leafed out. If possible look at the roots, select those with healthy-looking, well-formed root systems. Avoid any with slimy roots or dry, withered ones. Often the roots are packed in wood shavings and wrapped in plastic so you can't see the roots, avoid packages that have been opened, are waterlogged or seem excessively dry. If ordering plants by mail, check the order as soon as it arrives for errors in packing as well as broken, or damaged plants. Notify the shipper immediately of any problems, most do a great job of customer service.
It's best to plant as soon as possible after purchase. If you're not ready or the weather is truly ghastly, "heel in" the plants by laying them in a temporary trench dug in a shady spot in the garden and cover the roots with moist sawdust, bark or soil. Never let the roots dry out or freeze.
Most growers provide detailed planting instructions, read through them before you start. I like to start by digging a hole a bit wider and deeper than the roots. This gives me a chance to check soil conditions. It should be moist but not excessively wet. If it's very wet wait a few days. Where drainage is a problem, it may be necessary to create a planting area above grade. Use a spading fork to rough up the sides of the hole, roots have a hard time growing into the surrounding soil if the sides are too smooth.
Remove the packing material from around the roots. Don't put the wood shaving or moss in the planting hole. Wash off any remaining bits with a hose, or you can soak the roots in a bucket of water as you dig the hole. It's important that the roots never dry out. Just before planting cut off any damaged or broken roots to sound wood with a clean cut. Remove any major roots that cross over the root system close the trunk; these could eventually girdle the tree killing it. Make a cone shaped mound in the center of the planting hole. Position the plant so that it's at the correct depth, usually the same depth it was planted at in the nursery, if this is a grafted tree the graft union should be at least an inch above ground. Spread the roots as evenly as possible. Back fill, using the native soil from the hole. Don't put chemical fertilizer or fresh manure in the planting hole it could damage the roots. Hold the plant upright as you firm the soil, being sure there are no air pockets around the roots. In the unlikely event that the soil is dry slowly soak with water and firm the soil again. A good resource on planting landscape trees in a bulletin from Washington State University EB 1505 "Planting Landscape Plants". For those interested in growing tree fruit PNW 0400 "Training and Pruning Your Home Orchard."
How about a plug for the Miller Library as a resource for locating growers. Using the many resources found in the Miller Library and on the Internet, Plant Answer Line is tailored to the needs of Pacific Northwest gardeners. Call with your gardening questions Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 206-897-5268 (206-UW-PLANT)
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