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Tree Planting Tips - It's More Than Digging a Big Hole

Updated on November 1, 2010

In this article I'm giving you necessary tree planting tips to give you the best chance of success with your new tree.

There are countless trees to choose for planting in your landscape, so first decide what kind of tree you are looking for. You may need shade or just ornamental, or you might want an evergreen for a winter windbreak. Just do your homework and select a tree that is native to your area so it grows well without special care.

Trees typically are purchased in containers like most other plants, or larger specimens are “balled and burlapped”. This means that the tree was dug up and heavy burlap was wrapped around the root ball to retain the soil and protect the roots from damage. They were not grown this way as trees in containers are. When you are at the nursery, it doesn't matter if it's in a container or burlap, but you want to find a tree that displays good symmetry and is a good example of the species you decided to plant.

Most important tree planting tip: select the proper location for planting.
Most important tree planting tip: select the proper location for planting.

The most important of these tree planting tips is to know how big the tree will get and to make sure there is enough room for it when it grows to full size. I can't tell you how often people will plant a tree in an area or space too small or where the tree will otherwise conflict with it's environment (think power lines). Usually the result is either a requirement for continuous maintenance involving trimming back repeatedly, or the worst case where the tree has to be removed.

Tree Planting Tips

Tree planting tip 1: Don't plant a tree if there isn't enough room for it when full grown. I'm repeating it because it's important!

Tree planting tip 2: Dig a large enough hole. The most common mistake made when planting a tree is digging a hole too deep and too narrow. There is an easy way to measure how large the hole needs to be; you simply use the root ball as your gauge. Look at the container or root ball, and only dig your hole as deep as the tree is currently sitting in the soil. Too shallow is better than too deep here. If you look at the base of the tree, there is a “trunk flare” where it widens into the roots. This flare should never be below soil, or your tree will not likely survive.

Your hole needs to be 2-3 times as wide as the root ball, wider is better as it makes it easier for the young tree roots to grow into the surrounding soil. The roots are a tree's support, so you want them to be able to spread out as quickly as possible. If you can imagine a wide, shallow bowl you will have a mental picture of what the hole should look like. If your soil has a lot of clay, the shovel may have smoothed out the soil on the edges of the hole. This can be a barrier for young roots, so take the time to break up the soil all around the sides inside of your hole.

Tree planting tip 3: Make sure your tree is vertical. Bring your tree to the hole, making sure you only move it by the root ball, never the trunk. Take the time to walk around it, and if you can, have someone else observe as well to ensure it is not leaning at all. It is much more difficult if not impossible to correct this later. Make sure your tree is standing straight from all angles, and then kick enough soil around the base of the root ball to stabilize it and keep it from shifting as you fill the hole.

Tree planting tip 4: Fill your hole only 1/3 at a time. You want to make sure that you gradually fill in the hole and pack in the soil firmly, but gently, taking care not to damage the roots. Now is also a good time to add any nutrients if your soil needs it. Phosphorus and potassium are often used to help establish new trees, but do a soil test to confirm if you actually need any in your soil. Also, this is where you want to cut away some of the burlap, and make sure there is no string or wire encircling the tree or roots. Be absolutely sure before burying the roots because this will guarantee the death of your tree if you miss it. There is no need to completely remove the burlap underneath, though, since this will decompose in the soil over time with no ill effects.

After packing in the first 1/3 bring in the next 1/3 and do the same thing; pack it in firmly. Walk around on it and tamp the soil down in order to remove air pockets, but don't stomp. Your goal is not concrete hard, but you want to make sure the tree will have plenty of support which loose soil does not give. Continue with the final 1/3 of soil, but be sure that you do not bury the trunk flare. You will most likely have some leftover soil. I recommend that you use this to make a built-up wall of soil about 2 inches tall in a circle near the perimeter of your hole's edges. This serves to capture water and hold it giving it time to percolate into the soil around the root ball. Don't worry how it looks, we will be covering it with mulch later anyway.

Tree planting tip 4 (optional): Stake your tree. Trees actually grow better and stronger if they are not staked, but depending on the tree and the area's wind conditions this may be necessary. If you typically have high winds err on the safe side, but only keep the tree staked long enough to ensure root growth. This should be no longer than one growing season.

Tree planting tip 5: Mulch around the tree. You will want to look to the tips of the tree's branches. The circle this makes around the tree is called the drip line. You want to make a circle of mulch that is about the same size as the drip line of a young tree, and you will apply it evenly 2-3 inches thick. There is no need for more than that, and be sure that you have a 2-3 inch circle around the base of the trunk that is free of any mulch. There is nothing worse than seeing a newly mulched tree with it piled up all around the trunk, and this goes for old trees as well as new ones. This can introduce rot, and is bad for the tree. If your landscaping crew is doing this, they are doing it wrong!

Tree planting tip 6: Follow up care. This is the most important to a tree's survival. Just because you got it in the ground does not mean there is nothing more to do. Trees need plenty of water their first year, and you may not see they have died until the following season when they don't leaf out. Do not over-water, but just make sure they are getting no less than 1 inch of water per week. I will typically lay a garden hose near the base of the tree with a slow stream of water for an hour or two once per week, but there are also hose rings available that you can attach that work well for this. Make sure you mulch in both spring and fall, and you should be the proud owner of a happy, healthy tree.


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    • profile image

      Paula - Enviro Tips 7 years ago

      Great tips! Thanks very much!

    • Jeffrey Neal profile image

      Jeffrey Neal 8 years ago from Tennessee

      heathertml, thank you for your comments. No, I wasn't aware that this was a common practice, but I know I have seen too many landscapers piling the mulch up around the tree trunk as well as pruning crepe myrtles incorrectly. I drives me batty! I would imagine, as you said, they are probably not having ideal success rates with their tree planting methods. Glad you enjoyed the hub!

    • heathertml profile image

      heathertml 8 years ago

      Exceptionally well done. Thanks. Jeffrey, did you know that South Americans tend to plant trees with the root flare about 6 inches beneath the soil? This has happened with three South and Central American gardeners I have hired. I know that some plants like certain Solanums, native to South America, are opportunistic rooters like tomatoes, but certainly they must lose half the trees they plant this way.

    • Jeffrey Neal profile image

      Jeffrey Neal 8 years ago from Tennessee

      Two years ago when I redid the front and needed another tree I had it narrowed to a dogwood or a redbud. Then I found the forest pansy redbud variety with dark maroon tree! That's the tree I planted.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 8 years ago from Georgia

      Great tips. I need to add another dogwood to the front yard.


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