Shut Up and Dig

How NOT to Plant a Tree

of Florida professor Ed Gilman has a great website with everything you need
to know about woody plants.

Gilman has done extensive studies on what actually happens to roots when
they've been treated differently and he has shown over and over again that
amendments in the planting hole are not necessary and may also cause roots to
circle the area rather than stretch out into the surrounding soil:

2001 study: "Effect of nursery production method, irrigation, and inoculation
with mycorrhizae-forming fungi on establishment of Quercus virginiana"

Myth of Collapsing Root Balls
: (
Chalker-Scott/Horticultural Myths_files/Myths/B&B root ball.pdf
and burlapped root balls must be left intact during transplanting”showed that there was no discernable effect from mycorrhizae inoculations on
newly planted Southern live oak trees.

There are several articles on Linda
Chalker-Scott's Informed Gardener website,

Posted by on March 25, 2010 at 4:04 am, in the category Shut Up and Dig.
Comments are off for this post

43 responses to “How NOT to Plant a Tree”

  1. sarahammocks says:

    Ha! Wonderfully cranky post! I think P Smith’s most important credential is that luxuriant blond hair that flops over his face a la Martha Stewart as he wields that shiny new shovel (“is this how you hold it?”)

  2. Its easier to sell gardening if your clothes are clean. This is the standard for “personality” gardeners- men and women. Obviously intended for non-gardeners, new gardeners.

    No matter, he’s always bugged me.

  3. commonweeder says:

    The scary thing about Smith is how popular he is and the impact he has on new gardeners. Most experienced gardeners will notice all those errors – as well as intuiting that anyone dressed like that doesn’t really garden at all.

  4. There’s a lot of good tree planting information — particularly for folks in the Northeast — on our Urban Horticulture Institute website:

    There’s a woody plant database for matching ornamental trees with the site, information on bare root planting and its advantages, deciduous woody groundcovers, videos and more.

  5. Kathleen H says:

    Great Rant! Amen!

  6. Judybusy says:

    Superb rant! I once got one of his books as a give-away, and it was REALLY worthless, with lots of pictures without captions naming the flowers. I also noticed his face was in a lot of the photos….always a bad sign!

  7. Wow! I think I’m the only person that’s never heard of this guy! And for that I am thankful. Thanks for setting the record straight about planting trees.

  8. vicki says:

    Great Rant. Hopefully, lots and lots of beginning gardeners read GardenRant–for lots of reasons–but this post is one of the most important for those who are wondering who they should listen to/read.

  9. sara says:

    Thank you!!! This guy bugs the heck out of me and it is very unfortunate that he has such a cult of personality around his name which dwarfs his lack of hands-on experience.

    I can’t watch Victory Garden anymore for the same reason. I learned *so* much from Bob Thompson and Roger Swain. But now it’s about “Hey, let’s bend this rebar and make a nifty-o planter for a bougainvillea because we saw it at a botanical garden…” or “Today we’re going to tour a place where they keep things perfectly groomed but we won’t really teach you anything about keeping things perfectly groomed…” I get better advice and ideas from the Roger on Ask This Old House, actually.

    Thanks for ranting, Ginny. I’m looking at planting some olive trees this year and will be checking out the links you’ve shared.

  10. LOL – the only thing missing is the mulch volcano, but maybe he just hadn’t gotten that far yet.

  11. Chiot's Run says:

    Kudos to you for noticing the commercializatin of this. I feel this way about everything – and I mean everything. Once you start deconstructing things this way you just can’t read magazines any more. They’re all ruined!

    An BTW, whatever happened to finding plants that actually do well in your native soil instead of buying plants not suited to you natural conditions and fighting them to get the plants to grow.

    I have clay soil, so I stick to tried and true plants and trees and do well in clay soil. I have tons of liatris and echinacia which thrive in my conditions, not tilling and spending tons on amendments. A little compost and leaf mold every year and they reward me with beauty and native insects all summer long.

  12. Benjamin says:

    I’ve only ever watched him on tv once I ran out of the house ripping my clothes off, screaming through the streets at the insanity. Amen to you, sister, on every freaking point! (Though a few times I wore nice shoes and pants in the garden because I’d just come home from work and couldn’t wait to get outside.)

  13. Tibs says:

    Amen to all the above comments. I have to confess that I think the trees I planted in my first years of gardening survived in spite of me.

  14. Cindy P says:


    WONDERFUL! Now if we could get your rant the publicity that old P Allen gets think how much better off the world would be.

    Thank you for voicing this so eloquently.

  15. Bladerunner says:

    I’ve tried to watch his show a couple of times (I was home from work, sick, and couldn’t be bothered to get up off the couch). I ’bout horked watching the pretty boy in the garden. I also found his voice very difficult to listen to, but I suspect that’s a ‘me’ thing. While I don’t pull on my dirt-stained bib overalls to plant my front yard crops, I still think I’ll stick with folks who don’t get dressed up to garden.

  16. Town Mouse says:

    Not owning a TV, I’ve never heard of this guy either.

    Great rant! I’m glad someone is speaking up!

  17. PlantingOaks says:

    I think I would rather watch reality tv than his garden show, which is a sad, sad commentary. It’s worse than unwatchable, as seeing it in the schedule taunts me with the fact that this is what I’m supposed to like.

    Not only is there the incompetence you’ve mentioned, the lack of any practical advice, or factual information…but his foppish personality is just grating, and the whole thing is focused so closely on his own little world of preferences.

    And I hate his dumb pleated pants.

  18. Linda says:

    I kind of like him, though I don’t really listen to any of his garden advice. I think most folks watch for the general feel and pretty pictures.
    Same for his books. They are coffee table books not garden advice books. But maybe someone will get interested in gardening as a result and then find places like this blog.

  19. donna says:

    We have a local gardening show I enjoy that’s really educational. But the national ones I don’t even bother watching anymore. Just crap, really.

  20. Great rant! And I join the others who say they’ve never heard of him.

  21. Rachel says:

    Luckily, my only experience with P Allen Smith was a free book I got through some publicity junket. What a waste of time!
    But I would disagree about discounting mycorrhizal innoculants altogether; I’ve done a lot of research on them in the past, and as with any living thing, results vary based on plant species, fungal species, fertilization levels, etc.

  22. John says:

    Deep down I hope that the truth is P has simply sold his soul to the devil and that “they” are telling him what to say, what to wear while saying it and which products to promote and that none of this is really his idea or his advice… and in a way I am jealous, wishing someone would offer me money for my soul. I can be your puppet for cheap.

  23. Sue says:

    Great rant, I love it! We don’t know this fellow in Oz, but there are similar types on the TV here for sure! My pet peeve at the moment is an ad on the TV where they are selling insurance but planting a tree into a hole the exact size of the pot, and the “gardeners” have to jiggle the root ball into the hole as it is such a tight fit. It makes me want to scream every time I see it!

  24. Don’t have a tv so can’t comment on his clothing attire , but if you think it is that relevant it must be important to the subject.

    In regards to removing the clay around a B+B, we have found that more damage is done by breaking off portions of the roots so we keep the root ball intact.
    The burlap is always removed once in the hole or is ripped into decomposing size shreds.

    If you have ever planted in a new development you will have found that there is no native soil. It has all been scraped away. So hence, a lot of comprehensive amendment is required when planting a new garden.
    You can’t expect everyone to have nicely undisturbed naturally occurring native soil.
    This may have been the case in this TV stars situation.
    Who knows, did you ask him ?

  25. luise h. says:

    I leave the burlap on the roots as well,but I cut the top open and remove all wires.And I always water the tree in the pot for a few days,before it goes into the planting hole.Maybe P.Allan Smith is so popular because,let’s face it,there is simply no one else left.Until the next “Garden Guy” (or woman)can sell themself to the networks.

  26. greg draiss says:

    You can use compost as a topdressing (well after the planting) out and beyond the drip line so that the soil where you want to roots to grow is alive with microbes.

    This advice is as bad as the stuff you claim is wrong. Spreading compost over top of a planting to encourage roots to grow there 1) may not happen and if it does is why would you want roots growing at the surface instead of deep in the ground.

    A little picky about no water in the photo…it could be just off camera.

    The TROLL

  27. Ali M says:

    Ok, so his show is a sham and PBS should be ashamed of themselves for airing the present Victory Garden. But, where are the good shows? Are ther any out there?

  28. I don’t care about how he shows to plant a tree, that info is all over the internet. Just personally, I believe someone previously called him “foppish”- I think that’s it. Khaki’s, blue oxford shirt, mop of blonde hair. I just can’t relate to the guy. I’m sure there is a market for him, I’ve just never been it.

    The only time I ever saw him talk gardening was back when he was the “expert” on the Weather Channel. But we’re talking when to plant the pansies expert here.

  29. Well…
    I still like his container combos.

  30. Ginny,
    Come on, honey, I know this is a great rant, but criticizing a man for his clothes? This is obviously one of those made-for-the-camera shots that forgets his viewers know what they are looking at. I feel like P. Allen is getting picked on, like that kid at school…
    I kinda like his container gardening books…

  31. … And, of course the tractor bucket and crew needed to move the tree into place are also conveniently out of frame/cropped; a 2″ caliper tree’s root ball can weigh 300 lbs DRY (this one looks 2.5-3″). Around here the best tree nurseries# are proud to grow trees in Davidson clay soil#, as it produces compact, healthy, sturdy trees with root balls that don’t fall apart when dug. And, no, they don’t amend when they plant a whole field of ’em.

    He probably tells you to stake the tree also…

    I have seen expensive trees decline because no one removed the stake (and the top died above that point)…..nor the PLASTIC twine cinching TIGHT the PLASTIC burlap around the ‘neck’/trunk & root flare of the tree….often in plain view above the mulch….15 years or more down the line. And this from supposed professionals from the most expensive ops in town. If you can, inspect your trees being planted by professionals. You can learn alot from the best (and the worst) of them.

  32. and now, actual good advice on how to plant a tree#:
    FREE, your tax dollars at work for you from VA Cooperative Extension (BTW our legislature decided to ‘kick the can down the road’ on budget cuts til next year). For more, any talk or latest book by James Urban, FASLA: Up by Roots.

  33. Haha, love this post, the UK adverts for garden products always show people in perfect clothes with perfect hair – get real! :-)

  34. Ailsa says:

    He’s not the only one. I have found the idea of planting trees with their wire cages and burlap intact is pervasive. I had to replant a giant Gleditsia last year when the client planted it before I got there as per the nursery’s explicit instructions –without removing anything! At least they gave him the right information about watering.

    Thanks for the links. Its always good to have the best sources at your fingertips for such important jobs.

  35. Dave Reed says:

    I agree with most of your points, and find as a general rule that TV gardening shows are for show, and shouldn’t be taken seriously. However, I couldn’t let a few of your comments pass without offering another side.

    P. Allen has not removed the burlap nor washed the soil from the roots, and many would agree that they should remain intact, though removed from the top of the rootball. Even within the Garden Professors, sited often on this blog, there is considerable disagreement on this matter. There are many trees that will suffer tragic consequences if the rootball is disturbed, and the actions recommended here are serious disturbances.

    When referencing “the clayey soil that is usually used” it sounds like the tree growers have added this soil to the roots. This is, in fact, the soil that the tree has been grown in. There is room for debate whether this native soil should be washed off, with potential damage to the roots, or left alone.

    After removing soil it is recommended to spread the roots, and there is no doubt that this should be done with trees that are dug bareroot, but with a balled and burlap tree the roots have been cut, and a person planting would find great difficulty spreading these short roots.

    Finally, I find very few plastic or nylon burlaps on trees. This was prevalent in years past, but the burlaps used by tree growers today decay readily, and do not interfere with root growth. If you are not washing the soil there should be no reason to remove most burlaps.

  36. Hi all and thanks for all the comments and emails. A couple of follow up points:
    1) There are a number of posts about trees on and you can find them by selecting the category “What about the trees.” The one on Dec. 7, 2009 shows what happens when you don’t undo the burlap.
    2) Maybe most burlap these days will rot, but why impede the root growth? And how will you find if there are circling roots that may girdle the tree later, if you don’t rinse away the soil?
    3) I did a lot of research for my book about the best practices for planting and caring for trees. The information I found particularly helpful were the detailed studies done by Professor Gilman where cloned trees were treated differently and after a few years they were dug up to see what really happened to the roots. Personal communication and careful reading of his scientifically designed research, which has been corroborated by Linda Chalker-Scott, is the main basis for my assertions. Read my references for more information.
    4) I learned that while root structure varies depending upon species, (Red maples and sweet gums have mostly shallow roots while oaks may have deeper ones.) most tree feeder roots are still located within the top twenty inches of soil. I stand by advice to use a top dressing of compost to encourage root growth. The healthier the soil the better the tree growth.

    I’m in the same boat with Tibs that many trees that I’ve planted over the years have survived in spite of my following the old gardeners’ tales of amending the soil and planting them too deeply. Just think how much better they might have done if I’d only had this information then.

    I agree that there aren’t many gardeners left on TV, but maybe we can encourage more interest and better science if we have more discussions like this.

  37. Ben says:

    awww, I feel like this rant has taken all the fun out of planting a tree…

    Why can’t you just dig a hole, put a tree in, and fill it back in? Maybe I seem like the equivalent of a Japanese borer beetle and am a jerk who wants to kill trees, but I haven’t killed one yet (though a rhoadie died – but I didn’t plant that one, so think I am safe).

    I might agree about not filling the hole with a bunch of amendments and bagged dirt, but if this is the magic that works in order for a person to have fun in their garden, thats good enough for me!

  38. Have seen him on book covers, but have never seen show. This is an EXCELLENT post! Wow – a poster boy for non-info!

  39. I watch PAS’s Garden Home program on PBS – he has a nice southern drawl, laidback manner, and good pacing. Bonus is lots of pretty, aspirational garden images a la Martha. I consider the show background eye & ear candy while I do other chores, not much more. Am just happy there is a current garden show anywhere in TV land these days.
    I’m surprised though at the venom posted here directed at someone most everyone admits they have never even heard of before! Yikes, you all are a tough audience.

  40. kateo potato says:

    I totally agree with you that this guy is a flake. I have managed to sit though his show on PBS a few times and I find his answers to viewers’ questions segments particularly frustrating.

    However, I had a few qualms with your post as well. My two cents on the burlap debate: leave it on, but be sure to score the fabric around the root ball with a knife, loosen some of the finer roots with your fingers, and untie the top around the trunk far down enough to make sure no burlap sticks out of the soil. Otherwise, it will act as a wick to pull moisture away from the roots. And obviously take off the wire cage or any rope. I’ve never heard of burlap inhibiting root growth, as you seem to be concerned with. I haven’t encountered plastic burlap, although I’d imagine that it should be removed to prevent adding garbage to your soil. The regular old jute burlap decomposes easily and the spaces between the fibers must be exponentially larger than the spaces of soil pores. I would be afraid that washing off the existing soil in the root ball would be more likely to send the plant into unnecessary shock than it would be to allow the root system to spread out more easily.

    As for the potting mix itself, despite the blatant product placement here, Pro-Mix is my recommended brand of sterile potting medium. I don’t use the mycorrhizal amendment version, nor do I see a wide practical application for it. I would imagine that he is using it here because he totally stripped off all of the topsoil and was left with the cemented layer of clay. I suppose using the fungal amendment could help establish new microbial colonies faster. I could also see using this potting mix for container plantings or seed starting to establish an early symbiosis.

    What bothers me much more than his freshly pressed chinos is that what Smith did to his yard is outrageously over-dramatic. No one should ever strip their soil in an effort to make better gardening areas, even if the yard does have a lot of gravel. This is not an appropriate quick fix. And I agree with Ginny when it comes to “Don’t Guess, Soil Test!” Messing with soil texture on a large scale is extremely costly, and dangerously easy to screw up irreversibly. I’m glad he finally got called out here.

  41. Kaviani says:

    Agreed- he’s a shill, not a gardener. And I can’t bring myself to trust anyone who loves white daffodils.

  42. val says:

    Back to the tree and not the dude–should I be worried that the $400 Betty Magnolia that I just bought was planted into a hole of amended soil? There was no way I could plant the 12-year-old, 10+ ft tree myself, so I trusted the garden center staff to do it well. By all sights they did (no mulch volcano), but now I am feeling nervous.

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