Deep planting – better plant establishment in the garden

Bill Hicks with one of his long stem trees

Every so often you come across an idea that challenges conventional wisdom yet leaves you marvelling at its simplicity. I came across such an idea recently and have become convinced that it has the potential to revolutionise the establishment of an extensive range of trees and shrubs in all sorts of situations where they would struggle or probably perish. The technique has been christened ‘€˜long stem planting’ by a very innovative electrical engineer by the name of Bill Hicks who has been turning on their head long held laws for the establishment of a very wide range of Australian trees and shrubs. Whilst this technique was pioneered for environmental restoration projects it has also been highly successful in garden situations where it has been trialled.
One of the basic laws of gardening is that when it comes to planting trees and shrubs that the plant must end up at the same level that it had been at in its pot. The consequence of burying the crown of the plant is usually suggested to be that it will succumb to crown or stem rot and be dead within a very short time. Bill Hicks became involved in an environmental restoration project in the NSW Hunter Valley where willows were being planted to prevent the erosion of riverbanks. Whilst willows were very good at solving the erosion problem Bill was alarmed at their invasive nature and their long term weed potential. Bill questioned why indigenous species could not be used instead of willows. The consistent answer he received was that they would wash away in the next flood before they could establish enough to stabilise the bank. Bill suggested simply planting native seedlings much deeper and was met with the conventional wisdom that this would be a waste of time. One to one and a half metre high seedlings of various species of Acacia, Eucalyptus, Callistemon, Leptospermum and Melaleuca have been planted up to a metre deep using a water lance. The system has proven itself to be consistently successful in not only providing greater survival and establishment of plants, but also in preventing the erosion that led to the use of exotic species such as willow that have since become a weed problem. Bill’s work has also inspired a range of other horticulturists to test the technique in other environments and with vastly different groups of woody plants
The long stem planting technique first developed by Bill Hicks has been adapted to a variety of other environmental projects around NSW with vastly different species and in all sorts of soils and microclimates. At one extreme Sydney Golden Wattle (Acacia longifolia) shrubs deep planted into coastal sand dunes have shown much higher survival rates in a situation where there was minimal maintenance of the plantings. On the other hand a trial conducted in a rainforest regeneration project on the NSW Central Coast showed similar promising results with species such as Sandpaper Fig (Ficus coronata), Cheese Tree (Glochidion ferdinandi) and Plum Pine (Podocarpus elatus). Extensive root systems that had formed on the buried stem areas were observed when samples of trees from both projects were dug up to try and establish why the plants were establishing so well.
The success of long stem planting results from the ability that many woody plants have to form what are known scientifically as adventitious roots (a term for roots that emerge from an area of the plant where they would not normally be expected to form). Gardeners are familiar with such roots because they are the type of roots formed when you successfully strike a stem cutting. One of the most astonishing results I saw in researching this story was a group of Sydney Blue Gums (Eucalyptus saligna) in a garden situation. Dozens of tree seedlings planted about 30cm deep had grown up to 5 metres in height in less than a year. None of the seedlings was watered in when they were planted yet the survival rate was over 95%.
There appear to be a number of reasons why the technique often achieves quite spectacular results. The most obvious one is that the plant forms a much more extensive adventitious root system that complements the original root ball formed in the pot and gives a much greater surface area to take up water and nutrients from a more extensive part of the soil profile it is planted into. The extra root system would also replace any curled or girdled roots that may have formed in the pot. The greater planting depth also puts the initial root ball into a part of the soil profile that usually has a reservoir of moisture that does not dry out as readily as at the soil surface.
It should also be said that some failures have occurred with the technique. Woody species that do not readily form adventitious roots have struggled, as have plants put into very adverse soil conditions such as compacted, heavy clays or soils that are prone to waterlogging.
The range of experience with long stem planting for environmental restoration has consistently demonstrated the potential of this idea for situations where limited watering and weeding is possible. As well as giving environmental restorers a powerful new tool to help establish trees and shrubs, this technique also holds amazing promise for gardeners as well.

Further reading (I would strongly advise you to visit Bill Hick’s own website as it is a wealth of brilliant information):
Bill Hicks Longstem tubestock website

Deep (Long Stem) Planting -€“ A Step by Step Guide-

  • Plants that are most likely to succeed with the long stem technique are those that are successful by stem cuttings. Even some woody plants that are not easily propagated by cuttings such as Eucalyptus are successful so it is worth experimenting if you have plenty of plants to put in.
  • Any pot plant can be used but best results are obtained if the plants are grown in special root training pots but this is certainly not essential to success.
  • Controlled (slow) release fertilizer should be used in the potting mix and the plant should be ‘hardened off’€™ before planting by putting it into an outdoor environment for a few weeks prior to planting.
  • Remove the foliage from the part of the stem that will be buried.
  • There is no absolute rule as to how deep a plant can be put in. Developer of the technique, Mr Bill Hicks, maintains that every centimeter lower you can go with planting will be valuable. The only exception to this is where you strike free water in the bottom of the hole, indicating that you have met the water table (if this happens stay above the water level or the plant could drown).
  • A scissor shovel or auger can be used for deeper holes while an ordinary spade or trowel is sufficient if the planting depth is less than 30 cm.
  • Submerge the pot in a bucket of water to completely saturate the potting mix before the pot is removed for planting.
  • Once the hole is dug a litre or so of water is put into the hole and the plant is dropped straight in. Do NOT put any manure or compost in the bottom of the hole.
  • Backfill the hole with the natural soil and tamp it down firmly to ensure contact with the newly buried stem.
  • Apply another litre or so of water to the plant and form a well around the base of the plant to trap any water that falls naturally or that can be applied artificially.
  • Whilst the plant will usually survive without supplementary water it may be beneficial during the early establishment phase, particularly in hot summer conditions.