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.

43 Comments

  1. large plastic pots on December 4, 2010 at 7:27 am

    That’s the great article! I just pass ‘n read it, two thumbs up! 😉

  2. Bill Brikiatis on December 6, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    Would you provide the same advice for planing seedlings in peat pots? Do peat pots also create a moisture barrier? I would expect so.

    • Phil on December 7, 2010 at 8:27 pm

      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.

  3. Large Plant Pots on May 21, 2011 at 10:53 am

    I’ll post the same information to my blog, thanks for ideas and great article. 

  4. large plastic pots on July 12, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    I’m so love this blog, already bookmarked it! Thanks.

  5. Large Plant Pots on August 15, 2011 at 11:41 am

    Great! Thank for information, I’m looking for it for a long time,

  6. Tree Removals on October 24, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    As valuable as trees are we believe your safety and security has to come first. As a qualified arborist we are trained to recognise weakness due to many different causes – and can let you know if taking your tree down is the only option.

  7. Sujatha Merchant on January 28, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    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 🙂

    • Phil on January 30, 2012 at 1:31 pm

      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.

      • Dorsal on June 11, 2017 at 7:41 pm

        Totally agree!! I take the black plastic off too. I replace it with metal.to keep bunnies out.

  8. pamela on March 8, 2012 at 6:36 pm

    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?

    • Phil on March 8, 2012 at 8:10 pm

      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.

  9. pamela on March 10, 2012 at 6:21 am

    i mean plant a tree seed in a pot first.

    • Phil on March 10, 2012 at 7:13 pm

      Yes, you can definitely start a tree seed in a pot first. Some can be quite tricky, but it doesn’t hurt to try.

  10. jason marshall on May 3, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    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?

    • Phil on May 5, 2012 at 4:50 pm

      I just found some burlap totally intact on a 30 year old tree! It’s amazing how long it can stick around.

  11. Sam Staffy on March 15, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    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!

  12. MMoussa on October 31, 2013 at 6:30 pm

    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.

    • Phil on November 4, 2013 at 1:55 pm

      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.

  13. Cassandra Miller on January 31, 2014 at 11:57 pm

    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

  14. Amanda Rodriguez on December 12, 2017 at 12:29 am

    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?

    • Phil on December 24, 2017 at 9:56 am

      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.

      • tim bates on April 27, 2018 at 6:45 am

        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.

        • Phil on May 1, 2018 at 5:41 pm

          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.

  15. Patricia Spence on February 11, 2018 at 7:33 am

    Can I ask if it’s best to put a stake in for a young Norwegian fir it’s just about 5ft?

    • Phil on February 12, 2018 at 9:30 am

      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.

  16. Jen on March 26, 2018 at 6:36 pm

    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.

    Thank you

    • Phil on March 30, 2018 at 9:58 am

      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.

  17. Melissa on April 6, 2018 at 6:24 pm

    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.

    • Phil on April 8, 2018 at 11:28 am

      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.

  18. Jo Eubanks on April 26, 2018 at 10:16 am

    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?

    • Phil on April 27, 2018 at 1:07 pm

      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.

  19. Chris Master on April 30, 2018 at 9:53 am

    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?

    • Phil on May 1, 2018 at 5:45 pm

      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.

  20. Jim on May 3, 2018 at 7:37 pm

    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.

    • Phil on May 6, 2018 at 7:46 am

      Yes, no problem, just water as needed, which may be daily in hot weather.

  21. Bill Wagner on June 9, 2018 at 9:52 pm

    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 ?

    • Phil on June 12, 2018 at 10:04 am

      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.

      • Jen on June 12, 2018 at 11:46 am

        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?

        • Phil on June 16, 2018 at 10:25 am

          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/

  22. Adam Forde on August 1, 2018 at 7:42 pm

    Thanks for all the threads, finding the info really interesting.

  23. Sheree on August 29, 2018 at 7:14 am

    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.

    • Phil on September 1, 2018 at 10:07 am

      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.

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