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10 Steps from Container to Yard

Learn how to find healthy container trees and plants and how to help them take root in your yard. 

Courtesy of Better Homes and Gardens®

Container-Grown Plants

Many trees spend their early days growing in a small space – containers that have always been their homes. You can plant these trees in your yard, allowing them to take root and grow to their fullest potential. Make sure you don’t simply purchase a container-grown tree based upon what it looks like on top. Take the time to study its soil. If you see roots swelling above the soil level or emerging from the bottom of the container, it may be root bound.

Take your investigation to the next step and ask the salesperson to remove the tree from the container so you can closely examine the roots. Avoid trees with roots wrapped in circles around the soil ball. Look for a plant that seems comfortable in its pot. This will allow you to find a plant that is less stressed, can wait awhile before planting occurs, and will result in a healthy tree in your yard.

The idea is to encourage the tree's or shrub's roots to leave their pampered environment of loose, rich, container soil and venture forth to find food and water on its own in a strange, more daunting soil. Don't put any special soil amendments in the hole or add them to the fill soil. They might encourage roots to stay put and wrap around themselves.

Withhold fertilizer, which mainly fuels foliage growth, while the tree or shrub concentrates on root growth. Once the planting is established and new stems and foliage appear, sprinkle some granular, slow-acting fertilizer over the root zone and let the rain soak it in. Use lots of organic mulch to keep the soil moist, and give the new tree or shrub plenty of moisture the first year or two. Water it in winter when the ground isn't frozen.

Time to Plant

Fall is the best time to plant many trees and shrubs. But spring is the next best time to plant and transplant and is preferable for certain trees, such as oaks, beeches, birches, and willows. You can plant those that come in containers almost any time the soil isn't frozen.

10 Steps from Container to Yard
Starting plants, like this
Lace-cap hydrangea, often grow
better in containers.


What You Need:

Garden gloves
Shovel or spade
Containerized plant
Burlap or tarp
Mulch material


1. Dig the planting hole just as deep as the tree's or shrub's container. Slope the sides a bit so the hole is wider near the top to encourage the roots to grow laterally outward into the soil.

10 Steps from Container to Yard2
Step 1. 


2. Slide the root ball out of the container carefully. If the soil is moist, the ball should come out easily. If it's stubborn, check to see if roots protruding from the bottom of the pot are snagging it.

10 Steps from Container to Yard3
Step 2. 


3. Loosen and untangle any circling or snarled roots. Cut any that are broken, dead, or hopelessly tangled. Those protruding from the soil ball will have a head start growing outward.

10 Steps from Container to Yard4
Step 3. 


4. Loosen any bottom roots that have matted. If they don't free up easily, cut or slice through them to get them to hang freely. Cut off impenetrable masses. This won't harm the plant.

 10 Steps from Container to Yard5

Step 4. 


5. Set the plant in the empty hole. Step back to see if its orientation is pleasing. Then check its depth. The top of its soil ball should be even with, or slightly above, the surrounding ground.

 10 Steps from Container to Yard6
Step 5. 

Steps 6-10

6. Fill the hole with the plain dirt that you dug from it. Don't add materials to improve it unless the ground is solid clay. The plant has to learn to handle its new soil environment.

10 Steps from Container to Yard7
Step 6. 


7. Firm the soil around the buried root ball to remove any air pockets. Create a watering basin by mounding the soil several inches high just beyond the edge of the planting hole.

 10 Steps from Container to Yard8
Step 7. 


8. Water the tree or shrub thoroughly, filling the reservoir, then letting it drain. Do this several times, waiting awhile between waterings for the water to soak in deeply.

 10 Steps from Container to Yard9
Step 8. 


9. Stake trees only if they are threatened by wind. Insert two or three stakes into the soil, equidistant around the root zone. Loop soft tie material around the trunk and tie one loosely to each stake.

10 Steps from Container to Yard10
Step 9. 

10. Mulch the root zone with a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic material, such as aged wood chips, pine needles, or chopped leaves. Don't pile mulch against plant stems, and don't fertilize now.

10 Steps from Container to Yard11
Step 10. 

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