How To Plant Container Grown Trees and Shrubs

Tree Container
Trees grown in containers. (Nadtochiy/Getty Images)

Spring and fall are the best seasons for planting container grown trees and shrubs in your yard. Plants grown in containers are generally available only during the growing seasons, but they benefit from time to get established before the weather becomes too hot or cold.

Container grown trees and shrubs do best if you take the time to plant them correctly, so a few extra minutes spent planting can result in carefree plants for years to come.

Read on for step-by-step instructions on how to plant container grown trees or shrubs in your yard.

Flower pots don’t need gravel in the bottom for drainage. (©cristalov, Adobe Stock)

Step 1: Choosing Container Grown Trees and Shrubs

The best way to ensure success when planting container grown trees or shrubs is by choosing plants that are compatible with your climate. Before purchasing, you should:

  • Planting Conditions: Take note of the light, water, temperatures, and air circulation in the planting area. Choose plants suited for the growing conditions.
  • Test Soil: Do a soil test to see if your soil needs pH or nutrient adjustment. You can do a little adjusting to fit your plants, but you’ll have better luck if you choose plants suited for your conditions.
  • Soil Drainage: Determine how well your soil drains. Some trees and shrubs don’t like soggy roots while others hate drying out.

Gloved hands place new plants in a raised garden bed
Planting in a raised bed garden.

Step 2: Tools and Materials Needed for Planting

To plant container grown trees and shrubs, you’ll need:

  • Shovel and/or mattock
  • Sharp, sterile knife
  • Gardening gloves
  • Hose or watering can
  • Organic soil conditioner (about half a bag per plant)
  • A source of phosphorus (such as bone meal)
  • Mulch
  • Trees or shrubs

Dirt Around Tree
Trees spread out to allow for better spacing. (BlazenImages/Getty Images)

Step 3: Mark Locations for Trees and Shrubs

  • Position Plants: Put plants where they will go while they’re still in the containers. Work out the correct spacing and distribution before you start digging, making sure each plant will have room to spread out to its mature size without rubbing against structures or other plants.
  • Mark Plant Location: Take a shovel or mattock and mark a circle in the soil, at least three times the diameter of the pot, for the border of each planting hole. You can also use flags, marking paint, or other markers if desired.
  • Remove Plants: Move the plants off to the side, preferably in the shade.

Digging Holes
Digging a hole. (Eerik/Getty Images)

Step 4: Dig Planting Holes for Trees and Shrubs

The planting hole is the most important part! A wide planting hole encourages the roots to spread out and establish themselves faster.

  • Dig Hole: Your planting hole should be slightly shallower than the root ball, but at least three times as wide. The roots should rest on solid ground to keep the plant from sinking, with the top of the root ball about an inch above the soil level.
  • Enlarge Hole: If you’re ambitious, you can dig deeper around the edges, leaving a solid mound in the center of the hole for the root ball to rest on. If your soil is compacted, make sure to rough up the sides of the hole, so it doesn’t glaze over and act like a big clay container.

Fill Hole Around Plant
Putting a potted plant into the ground. (Antagain/ Getty Images Signature)

Step 5: Prepare Trees and Shrubs for Planting

  • Remove Container: Gently lay the plant on its side and remove the container. Be very careful not to break any stems or to yank too hard on any part of the plant. If it’s stuck, you may need to squeeze or pound the container a little to work it loose, or cut the container into pieces.
  • Loosen Roots: Use a sharp, sterile knife to gently cut any roots that are circling or matted. Circling roots have a tendency to keep growing in a circle instead of branching out.
  • Keep Root Ball Intact: Don’t loosen or break apart the root ball itself! The idea is to keep the root ball intact, with some careful slices to encourage branching.
  • Position Plant in Hole: Place each tree or shrub in the planting hole, then stand back and take a close look. Make sure the plant is straight, at the correct spacing and depth, and turned the direction you prefer it to face.

Partial Backfill
Filling a hole around a small tree. (AD077/Getty Images)

Step 6: Fill Holes Around Trees and Shrubs

  • Add Dirt to Holes: Backfill the dirt around the plants in stages, taking time to tamp down each layer.
  • Add Soil Amendments: Incorporate a few shovelfuls of soil conditioner and a sprinkling of bone meal in with the soil. Don’t overdo it, as plants grow best when the surrounding soil is similar to the landscape soil.
  • Fill Holes: When backfilling the holes, don’t pile dirt on top of the root ball. Instead, keep it the same depth, or slightly shallower, than it was in the pot.
  • Mound Soil: Use extra soil to make a small donut-shaped mound around your plant, to help hold water. If your plants are on a slope, you can also use excess soil to make a small barrier to slow runoff.

Watering a Tree
Watering a planted tree. (Christina Vartanova/Getty Images)

Step 7: Water and Adjust Soil Around Trees and Shrubs

  • Watering Plants: Water newly planted container grown trees or shrubs thoroughly, allowing time for the water to soak in completely.
  • Add Soil: The soil will sink a little as air pockets collapse, so recheck your plants regularly and fill any low spots.

Mulch Around New Tree
Mulch around the base of a tree. (aquatarkus/Getty Images)

Step 8: Mulch Around Trees and Shrubs

  • Apply Mulch: Add a light layer of mulch to protect your newly planted trees or shrubs. Usually a 2”- 4” layer of mulch is plenty.
  • Position Mulch: Don’t pile mulch around the stem or trunk, as it can cause rotting and disease.

Two hands cupping a small plant in soil before planting it in the gound
Just planting some trees goes a long way toward boosting a home’s curb appeal. (DepositPhotos)

Step 9: After Planting Care for Trees and Shrubs

  • Watering New Plants: Give your trees and shrubs extra water until established. Water new plants at least once a week for the first 5-6 weeks, then gradually cut back to every 2-3 weeks once there are signs (such as new leaf growth) they’re becoming established.
  • Watering Established Plants: By the following year, your plants should be ready to handle normal growing conditions, with perhaps some extra water during dry periods.

Further Information


  1. Pat, in the demonstration photos, I am planting ‘Otto Luyken’ English laurels. They are gorgeous evergreen shrubs, one of my favorite choices for foundation plantings! In Step 1 there is an azalea (the lighter green shrub) to the left of the Otto Luykens. The photo in Step 9 features a blooming crape myrtle.

  2. Hi, looking for perfect unity planting tree for my daughter to plant at her wedding, possibly tree will live in a container for a couple of years and then be planted in the couples yard later. Tree is a symbol of longlasting love with proper nourishment for longetivity and will be memorable of beginning their life together. They will live in Atlanta Ga. for a while.
    Please help!

  3. I have just been given an Azalea. I have clay soil & a with a south facing garden. As I understand they like acid soil was wondering whether to grow it in a tub. So was looking for some advice!

  4. Was wondering if it is to late to plant shrubs in Denver Colorado, we are supposed to have a good 3 weeks left of 70 degree weather. If so what are good shrubs for a clay type soil in the fall?

  5. we would like shrubs 3-5 ft tall and 2-3 feet wide anyone got any specific names? for low maintenance fall planting clay soil?

  6. I have a azalea small tree in pot can I plant outside & leave it outside during winter months so it will bloom again in spring plants flowers all gone


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