Gardening Tips: Shrubs and Trees

Editor’s Note: We’re dipping into Michelle Smith’s archives to provide timely tips for gardeners.


What to do this week

Although last week I cautioned against working the soil too soon, one task that should be accomplished just as soon as the soil is dry enough is the planting of young trees and shrubs. I have been busy with that myself the last few days. I generally plant bare root nursery stock that I order in winter. But I have also succumbed to the temptation to pick up a fruit tree or two that aren’t mail order. Many people like to wait to purchase and plant trees when they are in full leaf at the garden centre. They buy trees that are already large, thinking that this will give them a head start. Or they buy the shrubs that are already flowering. But let’s unpack this a bit.

Large trees will suffer more from transplant shock. They may even be rootbound in their pots — some garden centres will hold over unsold trees to the following year. Purchasing smaller trees will actually give them a better start and they will usually catch up and surpass their taller brothers. They are cheaper as well, so the savings makes a little bonus.

By Nadiatalent - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

‘Betty Will’ Rose. Photo: Nadiatalent – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

I like to plant my shrubs and trees while they are still dormant, which is why I prefer mail order. These companies usually either dig to order in early spring or they dig them in the fall and keep them in climate-controlled cool rooms. If trees are asleep, they don’t object as strenuously to having their roots disturbed. The early, cool spring weather means they will wake up gradually, and also reduces windburn and moisture stress. A nice cloudy, drizzly day in early May is perfect. If the plant is already in full leaf, it needs to take up water right away, and this can stress the roots. Leaves evaporate a great deal of water and a warm, dry wind will dehydrate them quickly. It is important, in any case, to make sure new trees and shrubs are well watered in their first, most vulnerable year. They should be thoroughly watered once a week, rather than sprinkled a little at more frequent intervals.

Shrubs that are already in flower look beautiful but are, in fact, no bargain. Plants flower early when under duress, either through being rootbound, moisture stressed or from other existential threats. It may be putting out flowers as a kind of last hurrah before it dies. It is better to pay attention to the presence of healthy leaves and root growth. Such a plant will live longer and flower when it is good and ready.

To plant a tree, the hole should be wider than it is deep, to allow for the roots to spread out naturally. A one year whip of an apple tree, for example, will need a hole about 3 feet wide and 1 ½ feet deep. Loosen the soil well and pull out any rocks and roots of perennial weeds. Mound the soil in a little cone in the bottom of the hole so that the roots drape down over it and the graft union (for a fruit tree) is just above the soil line at the top of the hole. You can add a little bone meal at the bottom of the hole to help with root development. I often add some well-rotted compost. Some gardeners soak the roots in seaweed extract for an hour or so before planting, claiming that the phytohormones in the seaweed make for healthier plants. I have done this myself sometimes, and it certainly doesn’t hurt, though I credit more of my success to early, dormant planting. Do not soak the roots for longer than a couple of hours, as this will deprive them of oxygen.

By Opioła Jerzy (Poland) - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Apple Tree (Malus domestica) Photo: Opioła Jerzy (Poland) – Own work, CC BY 2.5


After planting, be sure to water well, especially if the soil is dry. If you live in a windy spot, you might want to stake young fruit trees while they get established, especially those on dwarfing root stock. I prefer semi-dwarfing stock myself. It is longer lived and more wind-firm. A dwarf tree will continue to require staking and may only live twenty years or so.

As for other gardening tasks, it is time to move the onions outside to a cold frame or unheated greenhouse to begin hardening off. This is a process by which we take tender, indoor plants and turn them into sturdy outdoorsy types. Plants get sunburnt from UV rays just as people do. Behind glass or plastic, they are protected, so to prevent them from crisping up the minute you transplant them, you harden them off. It should happen gradually over a week to ten days, exposing them to sun and wind a little longer each time. To save lugging the trays of seedlings around quite so much, you can use floating row covers over them to moderate the process. I have so many transplants that I have a special lathe house with high sides and a slatted roof to break the sun and the wind. It is still a little frosty, even for onions, right now, which is why they will stay in the unheated greenhouse for a bit longer. Tomatoes, basil, peppers and eggplants are sensitive to cold and should stay cozy indoors yet awhile.



Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.





This article was first published on 8 May 2019.