How to Dig a Hole for Planting Success

  • Post published:05/27/2012
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Applejack - a successful and early planting

It is planting season. I have been planting roses. That means I have been digging holes. And I have been dreaming of a book, first published in 1952, that I often read to my young children, A Hole is to Dig by Ruth Krauss and illustrated by a young Maurice Sendak, who has recently departed our world.

Sendak’s lively children are shown digging, energetically planting a garden and jumping and sliding in the mud while yelling doodleedoodleedoo. I’ve been digging and energetically planting, and when I slide in the mud, I’m apt to say things less joyous than doodleedoodleedoo. I should take a lesson.

The lesson I have tried to teach myself this year is to plant my roses properly and attentively, getting them deep enough so they will be better able to survive our winters, even if they remain as mild as the one past.

One of my garden faults, un-remedied even after all these years, is that I do not always plant my roses so that the bud union, where a graft of a more tender rose is joined to the rootstock of a stronger rose, is about three inches below soil level. Not all roses are grafted. Some are sold as own root roses, but even they can benefit by being planted so that where the canes first branch out is below soil level.

Often instructions for maintaining roses will recommend mounding soil around and over the bottom of a rose in the fall to help protect the roots through the winter. I bitterly used to wonder where a gardener was supposed to get all that  extra soil, but of course, compost will do just as well. In the spring the soil or compost can be pulled back and removed, or just spread out around the planting bed. I have noticed that shrubs on the Bridge of Flowers are prepared for winter in this way, and we all know how beautifully they come through the winter.

Using the space handle to determine depth

The first rule for planting a rose bush, or any shrub or potted perennial, is to dig a generous hole. The old saw goes that even a 50 cent plant deserves a five dollar hole. Digging a generous hole gives you the opportunity to enrich the soil with compost or other amendments that spot might need like bone dust for nitrogen,or greensand or granite dust for potassium, or lime to make the soil less acid. Since there is a financial investment in a shrub, it also pays to plant it properly and get it off to a good start.

I dug my five dollar hole, removing the sod and carting it away. I replaced that volume of soil and grass with my compost. This time I made very sure that when I unpotted my rose and set it in the hole it was deeply arranged. I broke apart the potting soil so the rose roots would be freed to grow and move easily into the soil.

I replaced about half of the soil, tamping it in around the rose. I then gave it a good watering. I finished putting the enriched soil in the hole, more tamping and more watering. Since then we have been blessed with lovely rains so the three roses I planted, Mrs. Anthony Waterer, a deep pink rugosa, and Folksinger and Winter Sunset, both Buck hybrids in the yellow/gold range, seem to be adjusting nicely.

Rose planted - deeply enough. I hope

Last Sunday I also attended the planting of an elm tree at the Buckland Public Library in memory of John Powell who played such a large part in the design and construction of the new addition. Stacey Kontrabecki was on hand to see that the planting was done properly. A backhoe made a good hole for the 10 foot tree and then trustees and others who had worked for the addition filled it in. Kontrabecki made sure that the flare at the base of the trunk was not covered with soil. She also assured me that no mulch volcanoes would be allowed around the tree.

The sight of freshly renewed mulch volcanoes around trees in the spring make me so sad. It looks very neat, I suppose, and those circles of mulch will keep the string trimmers from damaging the bark, but the mulch, rising several inches up the tree trunk will only encourage the growth of fine roots that do the tree no good, and encourage mold, insect infestation and rodents. Mulch volcanoes can eventually kill a tree.

I have heard horror stories of bad planting. Even landscapers have been known to dig inadequate holes, and even worse, planted trees with the roots still wrapped in wire to hold the root ball together. Those wires should be removed entirely or they will only serve to strangle the roots and kill the tree within a year or two. The loss is financial, and emotional. Two years of growing and developing lost with only the prospect of beginning again – with more knowledge born of this painful experience.

What kinds of experiences have you had with planting trees and shrubs? I would love to hear your own stories. You can email your comments to me at

A final note. The Greenfield Garden Club is holding their annual Extravaganza! Plant sale at Trap Plain at the corner of Silver and Federal Streets, Saturday, May 26, from 8 am til 1 pm. This is a great opportunity to get good plants, and garden related items, while supporting the Club and its community and educational projects.

Between the Rows  May 19, 2012

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