How to Plant a Tree the Right Way
Planting a tree might sound like a daunting task if you’ve never done it but in fact it is a simple, straightforward process. What is crucial for successful tree planting, however, is that you do your homework beforehand. First and foremost, make sure that the tree species fits your climate and the conditions in your yard. It is equally important for the tree’s survival that you are available to water it as needed for at least the first growing season, until the tree is fully established, which takes two to three years.
Note that these planting instructions are for trees that are balled-and-burlapped and in containers, not for bare-root tree saplings.
When to Plant a Tree
If you live in a climate where the ground does not freeze, you can plant a tree any time of the year. However, fall is the preferred time to plant trees, especially deciduous trees, because after they drop their leaves, they send all the energy downwards into the root system instead of using it for vegetative growth, which helps the tree to get established. Fall-planted trees can adapt to their new location over the winter and they are ready to take off when they break dormancy in the spring.
Likewise, in cool climates where the ground freezes, fall is the preferred time to plant a tree. You can still plant after the first fall frosts but make sure the tree is in the ground when the soil gradually gets cooler and eventually freezes in the late fall/early winter.
The second-best time to plant a tree is in the spring, the cooler the weather, the better. Spring planting gives the tree the entire growing season to get established.
Planting a tree in the summer is possible but not ideal because it unnecessarily stresses it two-fold, from the transplant shock and from heat.
Before Getting Started
The importance of making the right tree choice cannot be overstated. In addition to selecting a tree species and variety that fits your climate (native trees have the best success rate), take into account the tree’s mature height and spread. Other factors to consider are sun exposure, wind, soil type and drainage. Also remember that you need to keep ample distance from structures such as foundations and sewer lines, and determine whether there will be runoff from road salt in the winter, which is especially harmful to evergreen trees.
Improving the soil in the immediate planting area is good to improve drainage in heavy clay soil and the water-holding capacity in sandy or rocky soil but don’t go overboard adding organic matter, it should not exceed 10 to 20 percent of the soil volume. Otherwise the tree roots might thrive initially but once they run into the surrounding, less nutrient-filled soil, they will balk and growth will slow or might stop entirely and the tree could die,
Except for trees that require alkaline or acidic soil, most trees are tolerant of a wide pH range and you don’t need to alter the soil pH before planting.
What You'll Need
Equipment / Tools
- Pruning shears
- Gardening gloves
- Wire cutter (optional)
- Utility knife (optional)
- Compost or organic matter
- 1 to 3 stakes (optional)
- 1 to 3 ties (optional)
- 3 to 4 rocks (optional)
- 1 tree guard, such as wire-mesh fence (optional)
Dig the Planting Hole
Dig a hole that is at least 2 to 3 times wider than the root ball of the tree and the same depth as the height of the root ball. As you dig, pile up the soil next to the planting hole. If there are different soil layers, make sure to separate them. Remove any large rocks from the backfill.
Prep the Tree
If the tree is burlapped, undo the burlap on top. There is no need to remove the burlap on the sides, as it will disintegrate over time. If the roots are in a wire basket, cut the wire basket at the top with a wire cutter so that your lawn mower does not run into the wire, and also for esthetic reasons. Leave the wires on the sides; the roots will grow through them.
Carefully lift the tree out of the container. If it does not slip out easily, cut the container open with a utility knife.
Roots of container-grown trees often grow in a circular pattern (maples are especially notorious for girdling). Cut the ends of those roots with a utility knife or pruners to encourage them to grow outwards rather than in a circle.
Set the Root Ball in the Hole
Don’t delay placing the tree in the hole after you have taken it out of the container so the roots don’t get hit by the sun and won’t dry out.
If you have dug the hole to the correct depth, the topmost part of the root ball is level, or slightly above the soil surface.
Backfill the Hole
Return the soil to the hole in layers: rockier bottom soil first, then the good top soil last, mixed with additional organic matter if needed. Backfill to the top of the root ball but no more than that; no soil should be covering the root ball. As you backfill, tap it down compact the soil every few inches by stepping on it with your foot or push down with your hands to get rid of all the air spaces.
Slowly water the entire hole area until it is soaked. The water will compact the soil so if needed, add a thin layer just enough to reach the top of the root ball, then lightly water again.
Install Support and Protection
For smaller trees and saplings, secure the root ball by placing rocks around the trunk. Keep the rocks at least 2 inches away from the trunk so they won’t rub against the bark and damage it. You should remove the rocks when the tree is established.
For larger trees, first try shaking the tree gently and seeing if the top of the root ball moves. If it moves, drive 1 to 3 stakes in the ground and secure the tree to the stakes with ties that don’t cut into the bark. The purpose of the ties is to prevent the tree from wiggling in the wind, which can shake the root ball and damage the roots.
Install a tree guard around the tree to protect it from browsing wildlife such as deer.
Apply a generous layer of mulch (2 to 4 inches) such as hardwood chips, over the planted area. Make sure the mulch does not touch the trunk to prevent stem rot.
Keep Watering Your New Tree
The length of time that you will need to water your newly planted tree depends on the size of the tree and the climate. The lower your climate zone and the larger the trunk diameter, the longer it takes for the tree to get established. In the absence of frequent abundant rain, be prepared to water your new tree for the first two growing seasons.
Planting Trees Correctly. Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service.