Tree Planting Tips

Even if you're experienced at planting woody plants, it is worth reviewing planting techniques. Studies have shown that some former methods were not helpful, notably planting depth and soil improvement.

Have a layout plan when planting trees.

A well-conceived plan can bring intriguing results
when planting or transplanting trees.

The new rule in planting trees and shrubs is to dig a hole three times as wide as the root ball but no deeper. This is a major change compared with previous recommendations, which promoted deep digging before planting. The theory behind the new method is that roots should be resting on solid ground so they can support the plant's weight. Loose soil beneath the root ball causes it to sink too deeply into the ground, burying the crown of the plant. Don't improve the soil by adding amendments unless you are doing the same for the rest of the sector. Loosen the earth on the side of the hole as well. The goal is to produce a wide but shallow space with loose soil into which the roots can grow for many years to come.

Set the plant in the hole so that the soil line (a distinct mark at the base of the stem showing the point where the plant was originally covered in soil) is slightly above its previous level. In sandy soils, the plant can be placed level with its original mark. Do not plant too deeply.

Nurseries offer trees, shrubs, and vines in three basic forms: bare-root, balled-and-burlapped, and container. Each has its own requirements at planting time. Balled-and-burlapped and bare-root plants should be planted as soon as possible after purchase. Balled-and-burlapped trees often have excess soil over the crown, or root collar. Before planting, use your fingers to remove soil down to where the trunk flares out. Use this as the measuring point to determine proper planting depth.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary to thin one-third of the branches of trees after planting. It is certainly not recommended to cut back the main leader. If there are competing leaders, however, prune to remove all but one. Damaged branches or ones that grow at awkward angles can also be removed.

Shrubs and young trees can easily be transplanted from one part of the garden to another as long as care is taken to remove as large a root ball as possible. The general rule is to dig up one foot diameter of root mass for every inch of trunk, with trunk measurement starting six inches above the soil level. Transplanting is best done in early spring or in fall, when the plants are dormant. Flowering trees such as magnolias and silverbells are best planted or transplanted in spring; shade trees, in spring or fall. If you cannot transplant immediately (within the next few hours), make sure the root ball is covered with an old blanket or similar cover and watered thoroughly. The roots must never be allowed to burn in the sun.

During their first year of growth, newly planted trees, shrubs, and vines need to be watered more regularly than established plants. Water thoroughly, soaking the ground entirely, then let the soil nearly dry before watering again.

Here are some different methods for planting trees into the soil:

Bare-root Planting

This should only be carried out when the plant is dormant, usually in early spring.
  1. Trim off any broken or twisted roots.

    Trim off any broken or twisted roots when bare root planting

    These roots are broken.

  2. Spread roots evenly, setting the plant so the soil line is at the correct level.

    Set the roots.

    Set the plant.

  3. Work the soil in and around roots, firming carefully.

    Work in the soil.

    Work in the soil.

  4. Water slowly but thoroughly to settle the soil.

    Water to settle the soil.

    Water to settle the soil.

Balled-and-Burlapped Planting

Balled-and-burlapped and bare-root plants should be planted as soon as possible after purchase.
  1. Set the root ball in the hole and remove any ties or wire. Peel the burlap back from the main stem, crumbling the soil back if necessary to find the original soil line. If synthetic burlap has been used, remove it entirely. Adjust the depth as needed (slightly above the soil line for heavy soils, level with the soil line for sandy ones). Trim off any encircling roots.

    Peel back the burlap.

    Peel back the burlap.

  2. Fill in the hole bit by bit, firming the soil as you go.

    Fill in the hole.

    Fill in the hole.

  3. Cut off any excess burlap (none should be exposed after planting).

    Cut remaining burlap.

    Cut remaining burlap.

  4. Water thoroughly.

    Water.

    Water.

Container Planting

Transplant potted trees into the ground.
  1. Carefully remove the plant from its container, even if the pot is biodegradable.

    Remove the pot.

    Remove the pot.

  2. Loosen the roots, especially those that encircle the root ball, pruning them back if necessary. Shake off all excess potting medium -- it is lighter than existing soil and will dry more quickly.

    Loosen roots.
    ©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
    Loosen roots.

  3. Add soil gradually, firming it as you go.

    Add soil.

    Add soil.

  4. Water thoroughly.

    Water.

    Water the plant.

Building an Irrigation Basin

To ensure the quick establishment of a newly planted tree, shrub, or vine, make sure it is well-watered. To do so, build a catch basin of soil around the root ball. This will help direct rainfall or irrigation to the plant's roots rather than allowing it run off.

The soil basin keeps the plant well-watered.
Publications International, Ltd.
The catch basin keeps the plant well-watered.

Staking

Stake the plant carefully.

Stake the plant carefully.

Staking is the process of assisting the plant to keep itself upright and steady.

Here are some tips for staking:
  • After the plant is in the ground, stake carefully if it seems unstable. In most cases, two or three stakes set into the ground just outside the root ball will suffice.
  • Taller stakes may be necessary to support trees with thin trunks, especially bare-root stakings.

  • Staking is not recommended unless the tree is unstable or in a high-wide zone. Use ties made of an elastic material, such as old nylon hose or wide flat straps, that will not dig into the trunk.

  • Do not pull the ties too tightly. The stem should be able to move somewhat in the wind.

  • These stakes should be removed as soon as the plant is solidly anchored, usually within a year.
Your plant is in the ground, but how do you convince it to grow from a mere seedling into an adult tree?

The answer is time and patience. That's it? Surely, there's more.

There is. In the next section, we have some tips for growing a tree while you're waiting for it to be big enough to carve your initials on its trunk. Keep reading to learn about the best methods for growing both flowering and non-flowering trees.