Skip to Content Skip to Navigation

How to Plant a Shrub

Learn how to plant a shrub.

Contributors: Stacey Hirvela

Planting one of our container-grown shrubs is fast and easy! Here’s the best way to do it.

Time required: 30-60 minutes, plus watering

Materials: a Proven Winners ColorChoice shrub, a shovel, a hose, mulch.

Choose a site appropriate for the plant you’ve purchased:

Light:  Check the black bar on the front of our tags for the icon(s) indicating the plant’s light needs: full sun means at least six hours of bright, uninterrupted light, partial sun/partial shade means 3-6 hours of sun or filtered sun throughout the day, and shade is little to no sun at all.

Soil: most shrubs are adaptable to a wide variety of soils as long as the soil is well drained. Clay soils and rocky soils are more likely to have drainage problems than sandy or loamy soils. To test the drainage where you’d like to plant, dig a hole following the instructions below and fill it with water. Return to the hole in two hours: If there’s no standing water, your soil is well drained. If water still remains, this indicates poor drainage and only shrubs that tolerate wet soil, such as Little Henry® Itea, Sugar Shack buttonbush, summersweet, and dogwood are suitable for planting there.

Once you’ve got the right place for the shrub you’ve chosen, it’s planting time.

Prepare the site:

1.  Rake away any leaf litter or existing mulch from the area you’re going to be planting.

2.  Dig a hole twice as wide and just as deep as the container. As you dig, pile the soil around the perimeter of the hole in at least two different areas. This makes it easier to backfill your shrub after planting. See photo at right.

3.  When the hole looks about right, use the shovel handle to gauge the depth of the hole and compare it to the depth of the container, as shown here:

4.  Once they seem similar in depth, remove the shrub from its container by knocking briskly around the pot sides and bottom to loosen it, and carefully slide the plant out. Do not pull or yank on the stem(s). Alternatively, the pot can be cut away from the rootball with a pair of hand pruners.

Plant your shrub:

1.  Place the plant in the hole to check the depth. The top of the rootball should be even with or slightly above the soil surface. If it is too high, remove the plant and excavate a bit more. If it is too low, push in some soil from around the hole. Check again and repeat if necessary to achieve proper depth.

2.  Place plant in hole and step back. Does its best side face the direction from which the shrub will usually be viewed? Rotate the plant in the hole until you are happy with how it looks.

3.  Once you’ve decided on the most attractive side of your plant, use your hands to “rough up” the root ball a bit. The idea is to free them from the tight shape that the container has molded them into. Unwind any large, woody roots, and gently loosen the small roots away from the soil. This helps the plant become established more easily and quickly, so don’t forget this important step.

4.  Backfill using only the soil you excavated. As you backfill, firm the soil lightly around the roots to eliminate air pockets, continuing until you reach the top of the root ball, which should be covered with about ½” (1.27 cm) of soil.

Important: We do not recommend adding anything to the hole or amending the soil when you plant. Peat moss, compost, garden soil, potting mix and other products can cause drainage problems that make it difficult for your shrub to get established.

Water and Mulch:

1.  Water your new shrub, making sure to thoroughly saturate the rootball and the surrounding soil. The best way to do this is to set your hose on a very low flow and leave it on for an hour or two. Apply the water at the edge of the rootball, and move the hose to different points around the plant a few times during this period.

2.  Most shrubs benefit from a 2-3” (5-7.6 cm) thick layer of shredded bark mulch applied over the entire root zone of the plant. This helps keep roots cool and conserves water, minimizing stress on your new plant and encouraging rapid development root development.

3.  Keep your new shrub well watered – it should not be allowed to dry out completely during its first season. In the coming months, the plant will mostly devote its energy to growing roots, so you may not see a lot of growth on top. Typically, shrubs begin to grow vigorously in their second season; growth and flowering increase every season as long as conditions remain favorable.

Your small investment in time and money will yield big dividends in the coming years. So pat yourself on the back, get yourself a cold drink, and enjoy – you’ve earned it!

157 Readers Rated This: 12345 (3.1)
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 11/09/2018 - 6:21am

I saw prior comment on clay soil loving shrubs, i copied link but it says it cannot be found, is this correct ?

Cindy Meyers's picture
Cindy Meyers Mon, 11/12/2018 - 12:43pm

I think you may be including the period. If so, remove the period and it should work for you.

Thank you,
Proven Winners

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 10/25/2018 - 3:09pm

We just bought our plant and planted it, it has the flowering on it from the summer time and they are dead do I cut those off or wait until spring? Being it just got planted.

Cindy Meyers's picture
Cindy Meyers Fri, 10/26/2018 - 12:23pm

You may remove the flowers if you wish, though our general recommendation is to keep them in place - they make the branches more interesting to look at over winter.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 06/20/2018 - 9:04am

Hi my poor little plant is wilting, almost looks dead..I planted in sun and have watered faithfully but not sure if I should trim it down? I am in Saskatchewan

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Fri, 08/03/2018 - 9:29am

Overwatering and underwatering can look similar on hydrangeas, so it's hard to say which was the culprit. However, I would recommend digging around a bit to investigate and seeing what's actually happening in the soil. Once you've determined if it is too much or too little water, adjust watering accordingly and let the plant come back. Any portions that do not get new growth should be removed.

disclosuregirl's picture
disclosuregirl Mon, 05/28/2018 - 4:10pm

Hi, I have hydrengea's to plant and other shrubs. My soil is clay based and I want to amend it for the shrubs. We have a backhoe and want to dig out the amount of clay soil and put in new "triple mix" soil for planting, along with compost etc......My question is, how far down do you think I need to dig out the clay soil to put new soil in the planting area? thank you in advance. I live in Canada and I buy Proven Winners wherever possible. Laura from Garden Answer plants with it all the time.

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Fri, 08/03/2018 - 9:33am

I am always very hesitant to recommend replacing your natural soil with a potting mix like that. It can create what is essentially a giant bathtub that holds lots of water that cannot drain through the clay and hence ends up sitting around the plants' roots, causing rot. Though digging in clay soil is difficult, there are lots of plants that grow just fine in those conditions:

If you are really determine to excavate and install new soil, I would recommend a minimum of one meter.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 04/29/2018 - 7:58am

In Michigan,How early in the spring am I able to plant. Will they tolerate the cold?

Sarah Geoghegan's picture
Sarah Geoghegan Fri, 07/20/2018 - 4:12pm

The Cityline Vienna is hardy to zone 5, meaning it can tolerate temps down to about -20 or -15. You could plant it mid to late April, but it will really depend on the weather.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 04/28/2018 - 5:16am

Live on Long Island, NY and planted about 5 trees last year (5-6 ft). Dogwood, Spruce. All died. When I pulled them up, the soil was wet and smelled like sewage. Seems like my soil is not draining well. I am ready to replant again now. Should I add new compost, topsoil or something else that will keep this soil from holding of much water? Thank you

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Fri, 08/03/2018 - 9:27am

It sounds like you have a bigger drainage issue that needs to be remedied. Adding compost, etc., will not fix the issue and could even make it worse. You must find out what is suddenly causing your soil to be so wet - it could be a broken water or sewer pipe, or some other issue - and resolve that. If the soil is naturally wet, there are some plants that tolerate such conditions and those would be the best planting choice:

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 03/28/2018 - 2:35pm

Hi, I recently purchased these plants and my husband planted them, in the area he planted it does not get any direct light it's all indirect, we live in las vegas and the sun is so hot it can fry new plants, are there any tips you could give me for care.

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Wed, 04/04/2018 - 12:12pm

In a hot climate like yours, that will probably be just fine. Do monitor it for watering, especially during hot, dry weather.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 11/25/2017 - 6:02pm

Can I leave it in a pot to keep inside my home?

Cindy Meyers's picture
Cindy Meyers Mon, 11/27/2017 - 11:33am

No, we do not recommend this. Our shrubs are bred for your outdoor landscape.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 08/19/2017 - 3:08pm

My limelight hydrangea tree is wilting and turning yellow on the inner leaves. I planted it about 10 days ago. It has rained quite a bit in Michigan so I have not been watering it. What can I do to help it? I have pictures but I dont know how to post them here.

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Mon, 08/21/2017 - 2:37pm

Yes, seeing photos would be really helpful - please contact us here: This system allows you to attach one image, but we will give you an email address where you can send more.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Mon, 08/07/2017 - 9:57am

Yes, I purchased two Buckthorn trees, planted them, and now they have some yellow leaves and falling off,what am I doing wrong ? Are they getting to much water or not enough ? Please reply as i love these plants.Please reply,

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Mon, 08/14/2017 - 2:55pm

Hi there - we need to see a photo to give you a correct diagnosis, so we have emailed you.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Mon, 05/02/2016 - 8:41am

I have 5 Miss Molly butterfly bushes I'm getting ready to plant. Like others, I have a lot of hard clay where I need to plant them. I had read another article that recommended placing mulch in the bottom of the hole and then top soil, then the put in the bush. So many articles on this subject with different advice and I'm very confused what I should and should not do.

And should I not put landscape fabric down in the area on top of the hole I dug?

Thank you!

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Wed, 05/11/2016 - 7:59am

I most definitely do NOT recommend adding mulch to the or top soil to the planting hole - that will lead to the "bathtub effect" where water infiltrates quickly into those soft, porous layers but backs up when it hits the hard clay. I recommend not adding anything to the soil, but if you feel it must be amended, you can add compost, digging it in THOROUGHLY to the sides and bottom of the hole as well as the backfill. I also do not recommend landscape fabric - a layer of mulch will do the same thing but will allow for gas exchange and evaporation, both of which are crucial for success with butterfly bush.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 06/18/2014 - 10:25am

I will be planting a French Lace Weigela. Always says to mulch after planting, however, our foundation plantings do not have wood mulch, but instead have stones. Would the stones act as a mulch as well? Will the plant be okay with this stone cover?

jgst516's picture
jgst516 Fri, 05/09/2014 - 5:07pm

What happens when your soil is poor and has a lot of clay. I didn't want to but huge pieces of clay back so I used garden soil to have enough to fill the whole. The ground in our region is full of clay. I have done this before without problems. Any other ideas to make the soil better or break down the clay ?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 05/14/2014 - 10:00am

I was about to plant a new lilac when I read the article, your question and the responses. I, too, would have amended the soil and now I can live with not doing so, knowing the plant likely has a better start.

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Mon, 05/12/2014 - 10:34am

That is tough. In that case, my recommendation would be chop up the clay chunks with your spade and mix in compost. If you are able to mix those two things together, you won't risk the water backing up like I described here. Good luck!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 05/11/2014 - 10:40am

A lady at Home Depot told me that I could add gypsum to the soil when I plant any thing big to loosen up the clay. I don't know if that helps.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 05/10/2014 - 9:22pm

The soil in my part of the lower coastal plain of South Carolina is relatively heavy under a thin layer of sandy loam. I always amend the native soil with top soil and compost when planting anything. If a lot of clay comes up when I dig a larger planting hole for shrubs or tress, I remove it like you did. I do not agree that soil amendments lead to drainage problems.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 05/10/2014 - 6:47pm

We too have a lot of clay (North Dakota) so I fill my holes w/ a combination of dirt and a little peat. I see in this article they don't recommend amending the soil - but I work part-time at a local garden center and the 'experts' there have always educated the patrons to amend the clay soil w/ a peat/dirt combination. Garden soil would be the same thing. Most of my shrubs and perennials have come back year after year...only a couple haven' I feel I'm doing okay with what I'm doing. I do not put any of the clay back in the hole once I dug it out. My husband uses it in low parts of our backyard we're not planning to landscape.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 05/10/2014 - 1:42pm

Use of soapy water solution from soap containing sodium laurel sulfate and/or lava sand mixed into the soil have been very beneficial for me in the past. You might try the two together as I have with success.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 05/10/2014 - 10:45am

The problem with changing the soil in a planting hole is that the roots will eventually hit the surrounding clay. With shrubs and especially with trees, there is then a tendency for the roots to begin circling in the nice soft soil rather than forcing their way out. This can stunt growth and may even girdle some trees (especially aliens like Norway maple) leading to premature death.

You can mix a little garden soil soil with the backfill, but you really should avoid replacing it. Going forward, top the soil with 1/2 inch of well rotted (ie mature) compost in spring and fall, then cover the compost with 2-3 inches of mulch. The compost should extend well out from the planting hole where it can improve the structure of the clay. The mulch should be kept 4 to 6 inches away from the trunk. If it touches the bark it may cause rot. (And of course, don't build mulch volcanoes.)

Master Gardener

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 05/10/2014 - 7:43am

I too augment the clay soil when planting. Neighbors recommended a product called Claybreaker or similar. It contains gypsum also. Plants cannot grow in brick.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 05/09/2014 - 9:34pm

you can use sand to help break it up and give more drainage. I've lived in the SW and did the same as you, just dug the hole and added soil and a hit of straight Miracle Grow then set the plants in.....I do this w/ ALL garden plants to prevent shock..

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 05/09/2014 - 5:02pm

What happens when your soil is poor and has a lot of clay. I din't want to but huge pieces of clay back so I used garden soil to have enough to fill the whole. The ground in our region is full of clay. I have done this before without problems.

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Thu, 05/25/2017 - 8:08am

It can be a little difficult to determine how deep to position bare root plants in the soil, but if you look carefully at the base of the plant, you should see a difference in the way the stems look - you want that point at ground level. If you must err on the side of caution, it's best to plant them a bit higher than you think they should be rather than lower.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 05/17/2017 - 6:17pm

How do you determine how deep to plant the roots of a dry root Honeyberry plants?

Back to Top

Find plants you love and create idea boards for all your projects.

To create an idea board, sign in or create an account.