Bureau of Reclamation Banner, Upper Colorado Region
Reclamation Home             Reclamation Offices             Newsroom             Library             Dataweb

Plant Basics

Resources and References

In the following section we discuss the planting location, selection of plants in the nursery, transporting and planting procedures, the care and maintenance of plants, watering, and pruning.

Planting Location

There are a number of considerations that need to be made when selecting a planting site. This is especially important when thinking about planting. You should ask yourself the following questions.

[Landscaping Tips]

  • Why am I planting this plant (for shade, fruit, flowers, etc)?
  • How large is my plant going to get?
  • Where are the utility lines located?
  • Am I blocking a desirable view?
  • Do I want to hide a view?
  • How much room do I have for a tree?
  • Where is my nearest water source?
  • Will this plant create a hazardous situation, such as blocking the line of sight in a traffic situation?
  • Will the plant roots cause problems as the plant matures?
[Landscaping Tips]

When you have answered these questions then selection of the appropriate plant should be much easier.

For example, deciduous trees will shade your walls and roof in the summer while letting in the sun's warming rays in winter. Avoid planting evergreens on the south side of the house. In the winter the sun is lower on the horizon and we can gather warming rays through our southern facing windows and walls. Use ground covers or low growing deciduous shrubs instead. Don't block yours or your neighbor's solar access.

Plants in urban environments are subjected to many undesirable and unnatural conditions. Growth rate and longevity are drastically slowed and shortened due to misunderstanding, old myths and improper methods of plant care.

Plant Selection at the Nursery

Select a healthy plant free of insects and diseases the one that is recommended for this area. Check the main stem or branches for wounds, cracks, discolored bark or oozing sap coming from old pruning cuts. Select vigorously growing flowers and vegetables. Bedding plants perform best in the garden if they are just beginning to flower rather than being in full flower when purchased.

Container grown plants can become pot or root bound if they are left in the same container too long. If the plant looks too large for the container, inspect the roots at the nursery to see if the plant is free of circling or girdling roots. Trees can be purchased balled and burlaped. There should be a mulch covering the root balls keeping the roots moist. The root ball should be solid, not broken and the stem of the tree should not move independently from the root ball.

Know the form of the plant you're selecting. Don't pick a plant which has been topped (indiscriminate removal of major limbs) at the nursery. It may look good now, but it will become a maintenance problem as it matures. If your tree has a dominate growing point, as with pines, don't select one with double leaders. Before buying a staked tree, remove the ties, the tree should stand erect on its own and not require the support of the stakes.

Transporting: Self Serve or Delivered, Follow These Rules

  • Always carry the plant by the rootball or container, never by the top of the plant.
  • If transporting in an open air situation, always cover the plant with a blanket or tarp. This prevents drying, especially for trees that are leafed out.
  • Store the plants in a shady place, keeping the roots moist until you are ready to plant. Always plant as soon as possible.

Planting Steps

  1. Select your site.
  2. Loosen the soil around your site 3 to 5 times the diameter of the root ball to a depth of 8 to 12 inches.
  3. Dig a hole in the center of the loosened soil, making the hole at least twice as wide as the root ball, but no deeper than the root ball. The sides of the hole should slant with the top wider than the bottom. Be sure to roughen the sides of the hole.
  4. Carefully place the plant in the center of the hole, making sure it is plumb and the top of the root ball is at ground level.
  5. Be sure to remove all containers, wire, burlap, and string before backfilling. Check for circling or kinked roots. Lightly prune the roots and gently tease the roots loose if this is the case.
  6. [Landscaping Tips]
  7. Backfill with the original soil unless you are planting in a very rocky site where after removing rocks there is very little soil left for the backfill. In this instance, match the backfill soil as closely as possible to the original in texture and content.
  8. Backfill the hole half way, gently tap the soil, apply water to remove any air pockets. Backfill with the remaining soil and repeat the process. Use the excess soil to form a watering basin about 4 inches high around the planting hole.
  9. Staking is not necessary for trees unless the root ball is not large enough to support the tree or if high winds are a problem. If you must stake a tree, use 2 to 3 stakes placed equidistant around the tree. Make sure you do not drive the stake through the root ball. Secure the tree to the stake with a wide band of material such as the webbing used in lawn chairs, old bicycle tire tubes, or similar material. Do not use wire! Check the ties weekly to make sure they are properly adjusted and not rubbing or girdling the tree. Remember, staking is used to keep the tree from falling over, not to keep the tree standing up. Do not support the tree so rigidly that it cannot sway in the wind.
  10. Add a layer of mulch around the planting area. A 3 to 4 inch thick layer will help conserve moisture, keep weeds down, and help keep the soil temperature at a more constant level. Organic mulches are preferable, because they return nutrients to the soil as they decompose.


There is no magical formula or exact rule for watering. Watering is based on the site condition, time of year, type of tree, and most importantly, soil type. Clay soils, while taking longer to wet, will retain moisture longer. Sandy soils which easily absorb water also dry faster.

[Landscaping Tips]

Rule of Thumb for Watering. Fill the water basin, allow the water to soak in, and fill again. Check the soil in the watering basin two to three days after the initial watering. Dig in the soil and feel it. If the soil is moist, check back in a couple of days. Repeat this process until you have determined the best watering schedule for your plant. If the soil stays squishy wet, you have a drainage problem or you're over watering. If the soil is crumbly, dry and hard, you're not watering enough. Keep the soil moist throughout to a depth of 12 to 18 inches. Mulch will help.

Establishment Period. Just because you selected a native desert plant doesn't mean you can plant it, walk away and expect it to grow on its own. All new plantings need a minimum of two years for establishment, three years is better. The water basin needs to be upgraded at the beginning of each watering season. Rebuild the sides, increase the diameter and add new mulch. After the establishment period, remove the basin and water around the dripline of the plant to encourage lateral root spread.

Irrigation Systems. With drip irrigation systems a watering basin is usually not needed. The slow dripping action of the system allows water to be applied deeply without runoff. Be sure to inspect all emitters at the beginning of each season and periodically throughout to ensure proper watering. Design the system so that it can grow with the plants, especially trees. A bubbler placed next to the new plant will only provide watering capabilities for a couple of years. The watering area of a plant increases annually as the root system expands laterally. Impact sprinklers are not adequate for watering plants.

Winter Watering. Don't forget to water your plants during the winter months, especially evergreens. During our mild and warm winter days plants will be transpiring and using moisture. Winter watering also helps with root growth. As long as the ground isn't frozen, roots will continue to grow. Water at least once a month from November through February.


Inspection. Inspect plants on a weekly basis looking for signs of insect or disease problems. If you discover them early they will be easier to control.

Weed Control. Keep the area around your plants free of weeds and grass. Weeds and grass compete with your plants for water and nutrients. Hand pull weeds or use a herbicide labeled as safe to use around your plants. If using a contact herbicide, be sure to remove all root suckers and water sprouts around the base of the plant before applying. Remember that products labeled for weed and feed products are good for grass but bad for trees and shrubs.

Tree Staking. If your tree is staked, check the ties on a weekly basis and adjust them if needed. The stakes can usually be removed after one growing season. Here in West Texas, wait until the March winds have finished blowing before removing the stakes.

Mechanical Damage. We are the plants' worst enemy, especially when we arm ourselves with mowers and string trimmers. At all times avoid hitting and scraping the bark of trees and shrubs. Young plants especially have thin tender bark. It doesn't take a deep wound to damage the cambium (growing layer) in trunks.

Mature and Established Plants

Watering: A good monthly soakingi - maybe twice a month during the summer months should be all your tree and shrubs requires. Water deeply around the dripline of your tree. Place a trickling water hose on the ground so that the water can penetrate deeply. Move the water hose around the tree until the entire root system is wet.

Fertilizing: In West Texas, nitrogen and organic matter is usually lacking from our soils. So that you're not guessing, have a soil test done. This will tell you what is lacking and what is present in the soil. You can save money and time by correctly applying or not applying the proper fertilizer. Most mature trees in lawn situations receive the nutrients needed from lawn fertilizer applications.

Proper Pruning

The term pruning has almost become synonymous with topping (especially with mulberries). It shouldn't be that way. Most people follow by example and there are a lot of bad examples which are being used as the norm. Pruning is an art. When you finish pruning your tree or shrub the beauty of its natural shape should still be intact. Don't prune just to prune or because it's that time of year.

Unless you want that formal English-garden look, it is easier to keep your shrubs in their natural form. Remember the three D's of pruning: dead or dying, diseased, and damaged. This is the minumum that you need to prune in order to keep your shrubs healthy.

Searing your shrubs is like topping a tree. Shearing is a very high maintenance type of pruning. Once you shear you must constantly keep pruning to keep the appearance of your shrubs as you like.

Bedding plants and flowering annuals require minimum pruning. Remove the dead material by simply pinching or snipping the faded or spent flower heads, leaves and stems. This will keep your garden looking neat and encourage the formation of new buds and blooms. Just keep a pair of hand pruners handy while you're out on your daily stroll through the garden.

Mature trees, for the most part, should be on a five to seven year pruning cycle. Young or newly planted trees should be placed on a yearly pruning schedule for the first 5 years to catch potential problems. Follow the guidelines in our pruning section and become a Topper Stopper.

Pruning Principles

  • Always know WHY you're going to prune.
  • Never TOP your tree.
  • Know WHEN to prune.
  • Always use the PROPER tool.
  • Always make proper PRUNING CUTS.
  • If you need HELP, hire a qualified arborist, THINK SAFETY FIRST!

Reasons to Prune

  • Removal of dead branches and limbs.
  • Removal of disease or insect infested limbs.
  • Repair storm damage.
  • Ensure good structure and branch scaffolding (training young trees).
  • Control the size of the tree, especially if the wrong tree was planted in the wrong spot.
  • Promote fruit and flowers.

By topping a tree you will:

  • Encourage thicker regrowth which will catch more wind than if the tree was properly pruned.
  • Encourage new growth which is weakly attached and increase the chance of limbs breaking.
  • Create large and numerous wounds which rarely callus and close properly and will act as doorways for insects and diseases.
  • Remove the food source for the tree. It then has to call on stored reserves to create new branches, buds and leaves in order to survive.
  • Create a maintenance nightmare and actually spend more money and time to keep your tree alive.
  • Add unnecessary material to your local landfill.
  • Shorten the lifespan of the tree by removing much of the tree's shading potential.

What to Prune

  • Dead and broken branches
  • Stubs
  • Root suckers and water sprouts
  • Rubbing and crossing branches
  • Narrow or weak crotches
  • Prune to a single leader
  • Parallel branches

When to Prune

  • Light pruning, removal of small or a few limbs, can be done anytime.
  • Most pruning is done when the tree is dormant, after leaf drop or early spring before bud break.
  • Spring flowering trees should be pruned after flowering, otherwise you will remove the flower buds which form on old wood.
  • Summer bloomers like crepe myrtles bloom on new wood and should be pruned before bud break.
  • Heavy pruning in late spring to mid-summer will stunt the tree's growth.

[Landscaping Tips]

The Right Tool for the Job

  • Hand pruners are for cutting small branches less than 1/2 inch diameter.
  • Hand loppers are for medium branches 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch.
  • The hand saw is for limbs 3/4 inch to 3 inches.
  • Use a bow saw or small chain saw for branches greater than 4 inches.
  • Pole saws are for hard to reach high branches.
  • Sterilize your tools before pruning and before moving onto a new tree. Use a 10% bleach/water solution or alcohol as a disinfectant.
  • Always keep your tools sharp!

Make Proper Pruning Cuts

  • Flush cuts or leaving stubs encourages rot and decay.
  • Collar cuts encourage better wound closure and keep the tree's natural protection zone intact.
  • When removing old stubs, take care not to cut into callus (living tissue). Remove only the dead portion.

[Landscaping Tips]

Removing limbs 3/4 inch or larger requires a three step process which will prevent the ripping and tearing of bark.

Step 1: Begin with an undercut about 1 to 2 feet from the main trunk, cutting up about half of the way through the branch. [Landscaping Tips]
Step 2: Start the top cut approximately 1-2 inches from the undercut, cutting down through the branch. [Landscaping Tips]
Step 3: The final cut is made just outside the branch collar. Remember to support the stub. [Landscaping Tips]

Last updated: March 24, 2008