How to Plant Balled and Burlapped Trees and Shrubs
By: Julie Day
One of the best ways to landscape a yard quickly is by planting balled and burlapped (B&B) trees and shrubs. Balled and burlapped plants are usually larger than container-grown plants and can give an instant finished appearance. Other than their size and weight, they’re easy to plant, here’s how.
Balled and burlapped plants are actually transplants.
Balled and burlapped trees and shrubs are grown in the ground while container-grown plants are grown in pots. When large enough, field-grown plants are carefully dug up and the root balls wrapped in burlap to hold the roots and soil together. The burlap may be natural (which biodegrades after planting) or synthetic (which doesn’t). While balled and burlapped may be stored for short periods of time at the garden center, they should be planted as soon as possible.
When choosing a tree or shrub, examine it to make sure the branches look healthy and the trunk is strong. Don’t buy a plant with damaged bark, scratches from too-tight twine, or spots that look rotten or diseased. As much as you can, pull back the burlap to make sure the roots are healthy and white and not girdling (growing in a tight circle).
Planting depth is one of the most important factors.
Early spring is the ideal time to plant balled and burlapped trees and shrubs, with fall a close runner-up. In general, you can plant anytime the soil isn’t frozen, though some trees (such as oak, magnolia, dogwood, Bradford pear, willow, and cherry) are slower to establish roots and do better when planted in spring.
Choose shrubs and trees that are compatible with your growing conditions. Native trees and shrubs will establish much faster and will need less soil amendments. Before planting, conduct a soil test to see if amendments are needed, and check your planting site for water drainage. Remember that roots will extend far beyond your planting hole, so don’t rely too heavily on amendments to correct soil problems.
Tools and Materials
Tools and materials need include:
- Shovel and mattock or pick-axe
- Work gloves
- Tarp or wheelbarrow
- Scissors or utility knife
- Bolt or wire cutters
- Pruning shears
- Hose or watering can
- Soil amendments
- Tree or shurb
- Tree guard (optional)
Step 1: Dig Hole
Using the shovel and/or mattock, carefully dig a hole that is exactly as deep as the root ball and up to 2-3 times as wide, with roughened sides. The wider the hole, the better, but don’t make it deeper than the root ball. You want the roots to sit on undisturbed soil, so the plant won’t sink later. Put the excess dirt on your tarp, wheelbarrow, or in a container, and stir in any soil amendments that are needed.
Planting hole should be wide and shallow.
Step 2: Position Plant
Lift your tree or shrub by the root ball (never the trunk), and carefully place it in the planting hole. Make sure the root ball is exactly level with the soil surface, never deeper. Untie any twine holding the branches, and turn the plant so that it’s plumb and in a pleasing position.
Step 3: Partial Backfill
Backfill the hole with soil about 1/3 of the way, just enough to hold the plant in place. Firm the soil and add water to settle this first layer.
Make sure tree or shrub is plumb and balanced before filling hole.
Step 4: Remove Wrappings
Once the plant is firmly supported, begin removing the twine, wire cage, and burlap. Some gardeners prefer to leave as much burlap in place as possible (arguing that it will decompose over time), but it’s better to remove as much as you can. If the burlap is synthetic, remove it all.
Using the scissors, knife, and wire cutters, carefully cut away and gently work loose the wrappings and ties. Inspect the root ball carefully, and loosen any tightly wrapped or circling roots so they’re positioned to grow outward and down.
Balled and burlapped trees and shrubs are often grown in clay soil to help hold the roots together. You may want to use your hands to gently remove some of this soil to reduce any problems caused by the difference in soil texture at your planting site.
Step 5: Finish Backfill
Continue adding soil to the hole, gently firming it without heavy pack. Make sure the root ball stays level with the surface of the soil, and don’t heap soil over the top. Use the extra soil to create a small berm around the outside edge of the planting hole to help retain water.
A berm around the hole helps direct water to the roots.
Step 6: Water
Water your new tree or shrub thoroughly, filling the reservoir you’ve created and allowing the water to soak in slowly. After the water has been absorbed, add soil to any sunken spots. Water your new tree or shrub regularly for the first year. Once you see new leaf and stem growth, you can add some balanced fertilizer to the waterings.
Step 7: Mulch
Add 3”- 4” of mulch to help insulate the roots and hold in moisture. Don’t pile mulch up against the trunk – the crown of the plant should not be smothered or buried any deeper than it was already growing.
Step 8: Inspect and Support
Prune away any dead or diseased branches. Remove any remaining tags and twine. Firmly tie or stake your tree if needed.
Step 9: Add Tree Guard
If desired, add a tree guard to protect the trunk from critter and sun damage.
Tree guards often come as a soft wrapping.
- How to Plant a Tree (Casey Trees, PDF 3mb)
- How to Plant a Balled and Burlapped Tree (Fine Gardening, video)
- Planting and Transplanting Landscape Trees and Shrubs (Purdue)
- How to Plant Container Grown Trees and Shrubs (article)
- How to Choose a Tree for Your Yard (video)
- How to Plant a Bare Root Tree (video)