Planting Trees In Pots – Don’t Make The Mistakes I Did
Planting trees in pots is easy once you know how to do it.
But should you leave the pot on?
The garden center may tell you to leave the fiber pot on when you plant. They may tell you to take off the lip and the bottom, but that’s generally all.
The same goes for burlap, and the rope and occasional wire basket that hold the root ball together. In fact, they might remove the guarantee if you take these things off.
The truth is, most tree experts who have spent a lot of time observing what happens over time when planting trees in pots, burlap or wire baskets agree you should take them right off, or at least remove the majority of them.
This is a case where I agree with the experts.
Planting Trees In Pots – Plastic and Fiber
You probably know you should remove the big black plastic pot that some trees are sitting in, but what about the beige fiber pots?
Pots made of fiber are supposed to quickly break down in the soil, and they do if they are kept at the right moisture level and if you have the right microorganisms to break them down.
If they dry out, or if the microbes aren’t there, they can take years to disintegrate. One of our organic gardening goals it to get those microbes back in the soil, but that can take time.
Planting trees in pots is not advisable because during the years they remain in the soil, they create a soil texture interface that does not let water pass easily, as does anything that is buried in the soil if it is a different texture than the soil. Sometimes this can lead to flooding in the pot and sometimes it can lead to insufficient water.
Roots might make their way through the pot, although sometimes they choose to circle around inside the pot, making an unstable, unhealthy tree that eventually dies.
Planting trees in pots is a no-no, even if the roots have grown into it. Do what it takes to get the pot off.
Find out before you buy if they will guarantee them when you remove the pot and burlap, and if they will take them back if the root system is not ready for prime time.
Feel free to post any questions or counter-arguments below.
Or check out my post on how to choose the correct tree planting width.
Would you provide the same advice for planing seedlings in peat pots? Do peat pots also create a moisture barrier? I would expect so.
Hi Bill,Absolutely. Take them out of the peat pots before planting and if the “root ball” falls apart (not that this would be the end of the world), try using smaller pots next time.
I have been growing trees in pots for many years. Fukuoka’s model works not just for agriculture. It works for trees in pots too 🙂
Oh yes, I agree, it works. I did it as a landscaper for 10 years, and it’s not like all the trees died or anything. But in certain soil conditions they will be severely limited, resulting in poor growth, sickness and sometimes death.
Totally agree!! I take the black plastic off too. I replace it with metal.to keep bunnies out.
We have a weeping willow glauca pendula planted in mid garden but has not grown at all for past three years and realized the wind blows towards it…we checked it and has roots long expanding, thinking of placing it in a pot but afraid to brake roots…whats your advice
They don’t like to be transplanted. It may be possible, so you can certainly try it, but it may not work. Also, it’s true that they don’t like big winds but they should be able to handle the wind if you leave it where it is. It may just grow more slowly.
would it be okay to plant a seed in a pot and then transfer it later to the ground? if so, how long can it be grown in a pot before you need to transfer it to the ground?
Hi Pamela, sure you can do that with many plants. As for how long, it depends on the plant, the soil, the pot, etc. Basically, when it gets so that the roots are out to the edges of the pot, it’s getting to be time to move it to a bigger pot or into the garden. That could be 1 year or several years.
I had bareroot saplings that I started in containers on my back porch so that woodland creatures wouldn’t gnaw on them. It is starting to get cold (Ohio) should I bring them in the house or leave them on the porch over winter?
You definitely don’t want to bring them inside, but you do need to protect the roots from the freeze/thaw cycles that happen in fall and spring by surrounding the containers with soil or mulch or straw bales or anything that just gives them some protection.
Thanks so much!
i mean plant a tree seed in a pot first.
Yes, you can definitely start a tree seed in a pot first. Some can be quite tricky, but it doesn’t hurt to try.
I have planted many trees in the pots. Most of them done quite well. Some did not. When I bought young trees, I always took the small, plastic pots of and planted them in a very, very large pots, as large as I could find. I asked many people and they said that as long as the pots are really large, the roots will spread and relax and they will grow the best the can.
I have a question. Some trees that I bought in small plastic pots awaiting for replanting, I cannot remove. They seem to be stuck. What do I do ? How to remove stubborn, small, plastic pots from the tree ball so that I can plant them in the big, comfortable pots?
What tools do I use? I am do frustrated.
Thank you very much and kind regards.
A very sharp knife and scissors should help you get the pots off.
When I plant a tree, I always remove everything I can before planting it (even the dirt and fertilizer bits from the nursery), and they do fairly well, even though I’m a scatterbrain and randomly neglect them.I think 3 times I’ve helped a friend plant a tree, and when it comes time to prepare the root ball they always tow the party line “Hey aren’t you supposed to leave the burlap in there?” Since it’s their tree and their home, I fall prey to peer pressure. None of those trees has done remotely well. At one friend’s house we dug out a dead tree (that the previous owner planted) and found that after 5 years the burlap was still down there. Now next time I help a friend, I’ll stick to my guns. If I’m volunteering for extra work, what’s the problem?
I just found some burlap totally intact on a 30 year old tree! It’s amazing how long it can stick around.
Go online and find out where you can plant a tree in your name for free. I went to myhollywoodgreenoffers.com and it took less than a minute. Save the planet people!
Hi, can I transplant a small pomegranate tree (2 feet tall) temporarily back into a pot after being in the soil for almost a month ? I need to use that location for another tree, then I’ll find another spot for it. Thanks.
Yes, any time a tree is transplanted, there is some shock to the tree and therefore risk of disease or death, but you can do it. It’s best to do it during the dormant season when the tree doesn’t have leaves.
Trees aren’t really advisable to be planted in pots unless it is a bonsai. But if you wanted it to grow naturally in it’s real size then have it planted on a fertile soil.Tree Service Pittsburgh
I’m wondering about saplings… (pine trees- not Christmas pines) ..can I plant them in bigger pots and leave them in there for a few years to grow?
Certainly. It’s just when you put them in the ground that you want to remove the pots. Note that trees grow more slowly in pots than in the ground, but there can be advantages to growing in pots, too.
i agree it probably isn’t advisable to leave the pot on when you plant the tree. however why not? if there is good drainage and you have pruned the roots severally so that they can still get water rather than killing themselves with their own roots then it may be not bad thing. they are going to be cooler in the ground so they are going to need less watering during the summer months. drainage is key but at the same time roots can get through stuff as much as an octopus can so in which case you can start watering outside of the pot. instead.
Not sure exactly what you’re saying here, Tim, but even if it’s a fiber pot, it often won’t get broken down, so the roots end up root-bound rather than spreading out into the soil.
Can I ask if it’s best to put a stake in for a young Norwegian fir it’s just about 5ft?
It depends on the tree and the wind. If the tree has a solid root ball, isn’t loose in the root ball, and the location isn’t too windy, you should be fine.
Hi, I have a photina standard in a large pot. I put it in there a year ago and it looks great. Is there anything I can do to make it live forever in there? It’s a privacy tree. It’s in a ceramic pot with draining holes at the bottom.
Yes, if your pot is big enough, it’s possible. If you keep the tree well pruned, it will compensate by not growing too many roots, so it won’t get root bound. But the main problem with keeping a tree much smaller than it’s trying to grow is that it can impact tree health, which can eventually invite pests. It’s good that you have a standard tree, though, as they’re already grafted to not grow too much, so it’s possible it could work.
Hi, I have some bare root trees that are about 2-4’… rods really. I’m not ready to plant them in my yard yet because we are doing construction. I was thinking that I could put them in a pot for a year but I’ve seen the fabric bags as well that can be put into the ground and transplanted later. I’m not sure what is the best thing to do. I’m a newbie and don’t want to end up with a bad root ball. Thank you in advance for any advice.
There are small advantages to each, but either works fine. Even with fabric bags, they should be taken out of the bag at planting time (despite what you may be told). So go with either pots or bags and don’t sweat it too much – just make sure you get them in there quickly, as they don’t want to stay bare root for long.
I dug a small 18″high buckeye sapling up and planted in a pot to give to a friend. All the leaves have wilted. I placed the pot in water. Should I leave the pot in water and see if tree might revive?
Buckeyes don’t transplant all that easily, but it is possible. Once the soil in the pot is thoroughly wet, you should take it out of the water (the soil needs air, too) and from now on water as needed.
I just purchased a big Anduze pot from France. I want to plant an olive tree in it. Do I need to fill entire pot with soil or can I leave in black container it is in and place that in pot?
If it isn’t “root bound” in the black pot, you can leave it in there for now. Eventually, when the roots need more space, you can pot it either into a bigger pot or directly in your Anduze pot.
I purchased 2 apple trees they are small about 3 to 4 ft high they are in a plastic bag containers how long can i keep them in the bags as i bought them for a property i have up north and i don’t plan on going there for about a month will they be okay as long as i keep them watered.
Yes, no problem, just water as needed, which may be daily in hot weather.
I’m planting some 8ft evergreen shrubs. The dirt is full of pea gravel and small rocks. Probably 2-3′ deep with rocks. Should I dig a larger area out and what kind of soil should i backfill with ti help assure a successful transplant ?
Yes, dig out a larger area. Don’t go deeper than you need to for planting, but go wider. Backfill with a mixture of good topsoil and compost, along with some of your original soil – perhaps 25% topsoil/compost and 75% original. You want to give them some good soil to work with, but you don’t want to make it too different from the surrounding soil.
I’m doing the same as Bill and have the same type of soil. I had my Gardner dig the two foot holes for me but he threw out all the soil he dug out. What can I use in it’s place? I was thinking miracle grow in ground soil with compost and fertilizer?
I don’t support Scotts (Miracle-Gro), but yes, some type of topsoil with compost is what you’re looking for. Best to mix it with some of your existing topsoil, too, because you don’t want the planting hole soil to be substantially different from the surrounding soil. You don’t necessarily need fertilizer, but that’s a bigger discussion. You can start here for that: https://www.smilinggardener.com/sale/organic-fertilizers/
I just bought two trees and my intention is to leave them in pots. However now thinking about it I worry I’ve made a mistake. I do have a garden but it’s not very big though it has a back wall and grass in the back. The trees are Pandora Cherry Tree which im told reaches 15ft I’d be OK planting this one I think. It’s the Grayswood Ghost Birch I’m worried about a’s it’s meant to reach 35ft. I’d ideally want to plant but that’s not possible with that one. How long do you think this could stay in a pot I’m worried about the windelay catching the top if it grows too high though there is a 9ft wall. Should I keep it a year and pass it to a friend to plant or maybe plant somewhere in the wild. It’s such a shame I can’t plant both.
Many trees can live in containers, including your cherry and birch. The bigger the container, the better. I’m not sure how long they can live – you’ll need to research that – but I expect it will be worth doing.
Thanks for all the threads, finding the info really interesting.
We just purchased a 2.7m Vulcan Magnolia in a pot to be transplanted into the ground of a 4mx4m tiled part shade/part sun courtyard. Do you think the roots will play havoc with the tiles over time? Do you know the usual behaviour of this tree? Greatly appreciate your opinion.
Magnolia root systems are wide and shallow, so yes, they could mess with the tiles. The same goes for many trees, though, and it may not be the end of the world. I’d rather have a beautiful tree with uneven tiles than no tree at all.
Thanks for all this information. I have a question about planting a tree in a pot.
Several years ago, we were walking in the Chianti area of Italy and saw beautiful, tall French Pines. The type that grow tall, narrow and upward. I don’t know the exact name. My spouse picked up a pine cone and brought it home. More than a year later (maybe two) he put the seeds in a pot and a tree started to grow. We’ve since repotted the tree twice. It is now in an 8″ terra cotta pot and stands 16″ high. It’s sparse and seems fragile but vibrant green color, beautiful and continues to grow.
We live in NYC so don’t have a place to put it in the earth and too selfish to let it go out of our sight and care.
Would you suggest that we keep repotting into bigger pots and at what point can we find its “home” either in a pot or, eventually, some place in the ground? Is there a better time of year that repotting would be best?
Yes, you’ll keep repotting, each time it outgrows its existing pot. There will probably never be a permanent “home” in a pot because the root system will always want to get bigger than a pot allows and the tree will eventually suffer. You could put it in the ground as early as next spring, although I’m not sure if it will take the NY winter – depends on the species of pine. Spring or fall is usually good for planting, but I may go for spring if you’re worried about hardiness, to give it more time for establishing its roots. Fun project!
Thanks so much! You can’t imagine how grateful I am for your answer and for this blog posting. We love that little tree. Much like Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree! Since I wrote you it’s grown even taller! It just keeps growing! Amazing from where it came!!!
Well, your advice solidifies our dream plans to buy a little house in the south of Italy. Probably in Puglia. I can imagine that this Tuscan born tree might find it comfortable to live in Puglia amidst the olive groves and other natural beauty!
Thanks a lot. I’ll keep you posted if things change!!!!!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and be well and THANK YOU!!!
Hi I have bought 3 Photinia x Fraseri Louise (McLarlou) small trees. The idea was to plant them in large pots and for them to grown into a hedge to screen off the back of a small urban garden to hide the windows of our neighbours extension. Woman at the garden centre said they would be fine in large pots and could grow to 12ft.
The man that dropped them off said they would eventually become pot bound and then the trees would suffer. Having now looked them up it seems that they may only grow to 6ft.
1. If I plant them in pots will they die eventually?
2. Will they grow above 6ft if I put them in the ground?
3. How deep does the soil need to be to plant them in (the back of the garden is rubble and concrete (hence the pot idea) so if we are going to go to the effort to clear this need to know how deep to go.
Thinking we should have got the bamboo!
1. This cultivar is meant for pots, but even then, yes, it’s more likely that they will die eventually, as it is very restrictive for them. That’s the same for any tree. That said, they could be happy for many years.
2. I don’t know where you live but yes, they’ll grow higher in the ground.
3. Depth is not as important as width. You don’t have to clear any deeper than the height of the root ball but you will want to figure out how wide the canopy is supposed to get and clear at least that wide, if not wider.
My daughter just celebrated Arbor Day at school she was given a small two year old of a red pine tree. Unfortunately our yard is very tiny and the city already dug up some old tree roots in our back yard blocking the drainage ditch. Can I plant this beautiful tree my daughter loves now in a pot? Any suggestions?
Absolutely. Eventually, it will prefer to be in the ground, but it can survive for many years in a pot.
Hi, I have a bunch of maple Japanese seeds in pots and they have all seem to be sprouting. They are just looking beautiful but I’m afraid to leave them all in (plastic) the same pots together. They are rather big pots, will they suffer being in the same pot? And could you give me some insight on how to continue their growth for years to come? Thank you
Yes, they’ll eventually suffer. Better to move them each into their own pot. If you’re nervous, you don’t have to move them all at once. Start with a few and see how they do.
I love your post! I currently have two horse chestnut tree’s that I have grown from seeds in a pots. They have been growing happily in their pots for around two years now. I have never grown a tree before and I was just wondering if you could give me some advice as I’m not sure if I should now plant them or re-pot them as they are looking slightly too big for their pots? As you can imagine I have loved these trees for so long now and taken good care of them so I don’t want anything to happen to them or to stunt their growth!
I would really appreciate some advice!
Do you have a place to plant them in the ground somewhere? They won’t be happy in a pot for too long, as they want to get big!
I am growing trees and perennials in pots to eventually plant in my garden when I’ve finished building my house and then can move onto landscaping. Can I plant them into the ground in their plastic containers to stop them drying out?
Yes, that’s a good idea.
I had a 12 year old sweet gum tree given to me in a plastic pot. I want to plant it temporarily where I live now but plan to take it with me when I move in a few years. What is my best course of action? Leave plastic pot on or off or make cuts? I have sandy soil.
I would leave it in the pot, unless it’s root bound, in which case, I might move it to a bigger pot. This will make the move much easier.
This whole thread is very helpful, thank you!
My question is:
I have a 2 year old Peach tree that is in the ground. We’re moving next year and I want to take it with me. Can I move it to a pot now before it gets to big? You’re previous comments said transplant it when it’s dormant, can I still put it in a pot this fall? It’s over 7ft tall, but I plan to trim it back to keep it small and bushy next year.
Yes, you can move it to a pot this fall. Not sure where you’re located, but if it gets cold where you are, just try to keep it protected from harsh winds.
hi there! how would you recommend planting pine trees in pots? we have seedling pine trees that we want to keep alive until next spring so we can safely plant them. The idea is to keep them indoors over the winter and transplant in the late spring.
Can you clarify your question for me, Angela? Are you looking to put them into pots now or are they already in pots and you’re wondering how to plant them come spring?
this thread is awesome and it’s answered some of my questions… 🙂
What size pots should I use to start tree seeds? Also, once they sprout and begin to grow….at what point do they need to be moved to a larger pot? ….and then what size do you recommend they be moved to? Not quite sure if I will sell my trees as seedlings or care for them until they are up to some size around 2 years.
I’m totally new to this….just something I’ve always wanted to try.
Hi Tina, various nurseries do things in different ways, but often, they start “bed liners” where they’ll put many seeds in a greenhouse bed in the ground, and once the trees are a few inches tall, they’ll move them into their own 4″ pots, or 1-2 gallon pots (depending on the species), and then once the roots have filled in, they’ll gradually move them to bigger and bigger pots.
I love this site! I’m new to the gardening arena and my daughter just purchased me two afagan pines about 4 ft tall. They are in a small pot and I think I better move them to a big one until I find a permanent place this fall. My question: When I put them into a bigger pot can it be plastic and should I drill drain holes in the bottom of the pot so the roots don’t get to wet?
Plastic is fine, and yes, you definitely want multiple drain holes. Good luck!
I ordered and received a mock orange starter plant–it arrived as roots and a small stem. My instinct is to plant this in a pot to get it started then transfer it into the ground in the late summer/early fall. Is that a good plan–to start it in a pot?
If it will help you keep a closer eye on it, keeping it properly watered and such, then yes, that’s a fine plan.
I found out recently my Gardner planted my two fruit trees with the blank plastic container (1 or 2 gallons) about 2 years ago. One of the tree leaves are falling which prompted me to check. My questions are 1, should I remove the container and 2 how.
They are already in the ground, so I’m thinking I can dig deep to the end of the plastic in soil and simply cut and remove the plastic. This should leave the root in tact where it is now. Do you think this would work?
Yes, that’s exactly what you should do. Go for it!
Thank you soo much for all the tips , I’m writing you as i cant find easily the right informations to start a project in the future about farming a plant called my plan is to buy about 500 small trees of this type they are one year or less old and keep them in the black plastic bag wich is very tine and replant them later in a bigger plastic bag when they start to grow , of cors i will watering almost every day until i get a big land where i can plant them in permanent but im thinking to keep them few years , my question is that possible to keep that kind of tress in the plastic bags containers for a long time about 3 or 4 years or can this process can affect on the development of the tress even i will mack my best to tack of them ?
Thank you for your patience i will be very Appreciate for any help or tips can be provided from you .
I’m not sure what type of black, plastic bags you’re talking about, but there are some bags that are sturdy enough and big enough to support trees. They need drainage in the bottom and you need to put soil in them and keep them watered. Personally, I would start with 50 trees and see if you can keep them happy for a year or two before investing in 500.
We planted an apple tree, but unknown to us the bottom of the peat pot went in the soil with the root ball. Will this deter the tree roots from growing, and if so what should we do now? The soil is now compacted around the tree and it would be difficult to get down to the disc bottom of the pot.
Not too big of a deal. As long as there’s moisture down there, it should eventually be broken down. I wouldn’t sweat it.
A dogwood planted itself in a flower border off my patio in three years ago. It is budding now and the ground is thawed here in southern New York. I am moving to Virginia within the next four months and I’d like to take it with me. Should I move it to a container now so that it will be ready for the move?
Yes, that’s what I’d do. You may lose the flowers this year, but keep it watered and you should be okay. Good luck!
I bought some small sapling conifers for my treeless property in northern Colorado. They were bare- root and starting to bud out, but look really good. Our spring here is doing its usual cold, windy, nasty stuff, and I have potted up my saplings in 1 gallon biodegradable non-woven fabric bags that I am keeping in a sunny window; the saplings are continuing to grow out their buds and seem to be doing well. They of course will not be dormant after I harden them off and finally get around to putting them in the ground. My question is: when is the latest I can transplant them? Can I plant them in summer?Can I wait until Fall? Should I take the bag off? (I’d like for there to be lots of roots showing.) Thanks so much for your helpful website, you’ve answered many of my questions already. I am experimenting with the biodegradable fabric pots and think they have promise, but I really need some expert insight and advice on that subject, too.
I don’t have much experience with the biodegradable containers/bags, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen. Yes, you can wait until summer/fall if you keep them watered. I’d want to get them outside as soon as the weather allows, but then, they should be fine as long as they don’t dry out too much. You can definitely try removing the bag when you plant and if the root ball stays together, go for it. If not, perhaps you can cut part of it away, like cutting the bottom and top off and just leaving the side intact, for example.
Thanks so much Phil for answering my question – and for inviting me to your online course. OK, I am happy to hear I can keep my little potted up conifers in their little pouches for awhile. I can tell you some things I’ve discovered about these. They expand a lot when filled and can hold a lot of water when filled with coir, so I mix my coir with at least 50% coarsest grade perlite or vermiculite. The bags are quite floppy and not a joy to fill. I soaked my bare root saplings for a couple of hours in a tub of water and soaked them in their filled pots before I set them out to drain. And drain they do; while the excess water is draining out, the soil is sucking in the air and getting aerated. I know this happens with most all potted plants with drainage, but it seems to happen really well with these sorts of pots; the sides are straight, not tapered, but the bags are typically taller than wide. My pines and fir don’t think they are too wet and are really pushing their bud growth. They do seem to dry fairly fast, so a water retentive mix like coir and perlite can be important. I think these conifers might like the deeper depth of soil provided by these fabric pouches.
The little potted Pinon and bristlecone pines had a delay in shipment and their little pots were encased in a tight-fitting plastic sack. Roots don’t look so happy, black and decaying maybe, Am hoping they can regenerate in these pots. We’ll see.
These pots are not very stable standing on their own. I put mine in mesh pots, and they are easier to water and move around; I am considering larger peat pots as the weather warms. To take advantage of the aerating capacity of these bags, I think it might be helpful to keep the bottoms elevated so they don’t sit in water. It is important to have maximum water retention with maximum air spaces, sometimes. A person could have some real failures with these bags and, while cheap, they are not all that convenient in use.
Phil, I couldn’t find a whole lot of info from gardeners who use these, and that is why I so appreciated your answer. If any of my observations here end up helping anybody, I’ll be happy I wrote this.
I just picked up three free saplings (2 silver maples & 1 tulip poplars) that the Forest service was giving away. All are 15″-24″ “twigs”. I’m thinking of starting them in pots now and then transplanting them this fall. My thought is I could manage watering them better, so they get established, if they are in pots along the house vs. their permanent spots further away on my property. Thoughts?
Absolutely. They may not get particularly well established, though, in just a few months, so you may want to wait until next spring to plant them out.