5 Tips for Tree Planting

More About Trees

Since I posted a few days ago about planting trees this year, I’m reminded about how easy it is to plant a tree badly (and how easy to not do the wrong things and do the right things instead!). I’ve written about this before, and another here, but from a slightly different viewpoint, so here I’ll give you 5 easy-to-follow tips.

1. Containerized TreesContainer_grown_trees_5

When you take the tree out of the container, look for circling roots (pretty obvious–if you’re not sure, they’re not circling). If they are circling, take a knife and score down the height of the root ball right through all those roots. The severed ends will begin to make new roots, just like a plant will make new stems when the ends are cut off. You don’t have to cut deeply–half inch will be fine. And cut at 3, 6, 9, and 12 o’clock. If there’s also a lot of dense roots at the bottom of the rootball, that whole bottom (say an inch or so) can be sliced right off.

2. Balled and Burlapped (B&B) Trees

Photo Credit
Photo Credit

If your tree came from a tree farm that grew it in the ground, it will have been dug up with a “digger” that produced a  standard sized root ball. It was then wrapped in burlap and tied with a nylon cord. When planting, remove the nylon cord completely, and cut away most of the burlap so it doesn’t remain above ground and act like a wick. (When it was dug out of the ground, a lot of roots were lost, so your tree will need frequent watering through the first season.)

Now have a good look at the base of the trunk. If it looks like a pole stuck into the ground, it means that too much soil was piled into the burlap bag when it was wrapped up. Begin to gently dig away soil from the top, until you find roots coming out of the trunk. This is the root flare, and constitutes the real beginning of the root ball. The soil should be no higher than this point.

3. Bare Root Trees

Photo Credit
Photo Credit

This in some ways is the easiest, because there’s no pre-existing damage to overcome. Bare root trees and shrubs are dug up and washed of soil before being shipped to to where they’re going. Because they are dormant–this is only done in late fall or winter–they aren’t transporting any nutrients, and little water, which is why it’s safe to leave them for a short time without soil.   The roots should be kept damp from the moment you acquire the tree, until it gets into the ground. I usually put it in a bucket of water until my planting hole is ready. Cut off any roots that look damaged or dead, of if there are any that are longer than all the rest or trying to circle the trunk.

bare root planting
This picture of the bare root tree incidentally demonstrates a root right at the top pointing to the right that is at risk for girdling the tree. Roots should pretty nuch come out perpendicular to the trunk. It should be cut off. Photo Credit. I don’t recommend you follow the instructions in the link!

4. Preparing the Hole 

As deep as the real root ball, and 2-3 times as wide. Make sure the root flare is sitting at or above ground level; if your tree is bare root, because there isn’t a solid mass that sits on the bottom of the hole, you have to do a more careful job of measuring, and probably make a little firm mound for the roots to “drape” over. I’ve seen recommendations to dig the hole like a shallow bowl, with sloped sides; I’ve also seen recommendations to dig it square, with straight edges. Just dig, and maybe rough up the sides a bit.

If drainage is a problem in your yard, your best bet is to choose a tree that will thrive in wetter conditions. Possibilities include some oaks, some dogwood, witch hazel, some ash, some birches. All willows. Alternatively, plant your tree in a modified raised bed: dig your hole shallower than the depth of the root ball and mound up the soil over the roots. Still be careful to leave the root flare exposed.

Do not add fertilizer of any kind to the planting hole. Do not amend the soil that came out before backfilling. Whatever came out goes back in. Do not mound anything, neither soil not mulch, up against the trunk of the tree. (But you already know that because you read the post I referred to at the start.)

5. Then What?

Water: A lot. Often. The first year your tree will need more water than older more mature trees. Every year for two or three you can decrease the amount of added water you give, so that by the third or fourth year, you won’t have to add any extra water.

Mulch: Add 2-3″ of organic mulch (e.g. wood chips or compost) over the bare soil, leaving several inches next to the trunk uncovered.

Staking: Not every tree needs to be staked. But every tree does need to feel the effect of wind in order to develop good roots and tapering trunk. If you do stake, do it for one year or less. Any more and it may be doing more harm than good.

Pruning: Yes. Sometime. Get specific advice.

Feeding: No. Unless your tree is a fruit tree. Get specific advice.

If you follow these simple steps, you’ll have given your tree as good a start as anyone could–provided you got good stock to begin with. If you have any questions, please ask. If you succeed, I succeed.


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