The Right Way to Plant a Tree

Healthy roots and cultivating the surrounding soil are keys to success in planting a new tree.

Related To:

  1. Plants
  2. Planting
  3. Trees

Plant Properly

You can plant trees the easy way -- just dig a hole and drop it in -- but your big investment may not make it through the spring or summer if you don’t get it right the first time.

plant tree properly

Arborist Gabe Beeler shows the proper way to plant a young tree.

Tree Selection

The type of tree you choose should be based on the attributes of the location and what functions you want the tree to serve. Remember that a tree is a long-term investment.

Consider these factors before you plant:

  • Size
  • Privacy
  • Shade
  • Color
  • Fruiting

When selecting a tree at the nursery, here are some things to look for:

Does the tree have desirable branch angles?
Are there dead or dormant branches?
Is the sapling the appropriate size for the container it's in?
Is the tree root-bound? Carefully remove the tree from its container (or ask your nurseryman to help you) and check the condition of the roots. Look for evidence of "girdling." Roots circling around the perimeter of the container, surrounding the trunk, can eventually choke and kill the tree.

a tree is a long term investment

For optimum growth and development, a tree's branch angles should be at 45 to 90 degrees in relation to the trunk. More acute angles (like this one) may cause fractures as the limb grows and thickens.

Location for Planting

Plant the right tree in the right location to save yourself unforeseen trouble down the road. Trees grow large--up and out. Know your needs. Are you planting near the driveway, pool or another tree? All are important considerations since trees shed leaves, branches, fruit or seeds, etc. Root invasion (such as into underground pipes) can cause costly damage to your property and shorten the life of a tree.

Planting Technique

Before you dig, make sure that the spot you've chosen for your tree does not have any underground lines that would endanger you while planting.

A common mistake when planting a tree is to simply dig a large hole and add amended soil into the hole. This tends to cause a "container effect" on the tree's roots as they grow to the edge of the amended soil then begin girdling around the perimeter of the space. This can ultimately lead to the tree falling over in a high wind because the tree hasn't been able to properly anchor itself with its roots. A better technique is to break up or cultivate the soil in a circular area around the location where the tree is to be planted. First, dig a whole that's the depth and diameter of the plant's container. Remove and discard grass and weeds from the planting site. Then break up and the soil around the hole so that it's loose.

planting a tree pedestal style

Here are the basics steps for planting your tree "pedestal style" as shown in the demonstration.

Loosen the Root Ball

With the hole dug and the soil around the hole thoroughly cultivated, carefully remove the tree's root ball from its container, and using your hands, gently loosen any outside roots from the sides and bottom, taking care not to break or damage the root ball.

prepare root ball for planting

Place the root ball in the center of the hole.

Place the Tree

Place the tree in the center of the hole on the undisturbed pedestal so the root crown (where the trunk meets the roots) is about 1-1/2 to 2 inches above the surrounding ground level.

place root ball in center of hole

If your tree came tied to a nursery stake, remove the stake.

Remove the Stakes

Another common mistake, according to Beeler, is over-staking trees. If your tree is sturdy enough to hold itself upright, do not re-stake it. If the tree needs help to stand upright, use two stakes and ties. Place the stakes on opposite sides of the tree, planted outside the area you just cultivated, approximately 18 inches from the trunk. Place tree tape loosely around the trunk and attached to the stakes with ties. The ties should be loose enough to allow the tree to move back and forth slightly in high wind.

Backfill the hole with the soil you removed. Discard any grass and weeds from the soil. Do not add soil amendments.

a common mistake is over staking trees

If your tree came tied to a nursery stake, remove the stake.

Finishing Touches

Create a circular berm around the base of the tree to help contain water and channel it to the tree's roots.

Water thoroughly right after planting, soaking the planting area. This will help get the roots established and settle the soil.

Spread mulch or wood chips about 6 inches deep over the entire planting area, leaving a bare 4- to 6-inch area directly around the trunk.

avoid planting tree too deeply

Finish backfilling the hole, but remember not to cover the top of the root ball, which is the root crown stake.

If you did have to stake your tree, periodically check the stakes and ties to ensure that they are not harming the trunk or branches. The tree should be able to stand on its own after one year.

Tree Survival Tips: What to Avoid

Here are two of the more common situations that cause newly planted tree saplings not to survive--and tips for avoiding each problem.

Drowning. Check root moisture for newly planted trees. Don't be fooled by surface soil conditions: check the soil 4 to 6 inches deep. The soil should be moist, not soggy. One effective means for watering, and one which wastes less water than using sprinklers, is to place the end of hose against the trunk and let the water drip all day or night.

Suffocation. Avoid planting too deeply. The root crown (where trunk meets the roots) should be 1-1/2 inches to 2 inches above ground level.

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