How to Plant a Tree: Grow a Healthy Tree that Will Benefit You, the Humanity and the Earth

How to Plant a Tree

Planting a tree is the same as presenting your environment with an invaluable gift. And although the sole beauty of the trees might be reason enough to plant one, the other benefits of such an act are also numerous. First of all, there are direct gains such as the cool shade trees create or the fruit they yield, but trees are much more than that- they produce oxygen, clean the air we breathe, combat climate change, and can be enjoyed by generations to come including your children and grandchildren.

Planting a tree can be compared to an investment as its growth depends on how well you choose the type of tree and the planting location, but also how well you perform planting and take care of the tree afterward. The proper initial care will secure a healthy future for the tree you are planting and allow for the tree to mature to its full size. Of course, only healthy trees can provide the social, environmental and economic benefits throughout their lifespan.

For this reason, it is of the highest importance that you learn the correct way to plant your tree and maintain it properly while it is young and requires extra care.

A Perfect Time to Plant a Tree

Team of volunteers gardening together on a sunny day

Although many would say that any time is a good time to plant a tree that is true only to some extent.  Namely, the perfect period to plant a tree differs as it is influenced by the climate and the type of tree you are planting. Trees grow year round in tropical and subtropical climates, and subsequently, you can also plant a tree throughout the year if you can provide it with sufficient water required for it to grow properly.

In other climates which feature cold winters, the perfect time to plant a tree is the so called dormant season. In case you are wondering, dormancy or dormant season is the time in plants’ life cycle when they naturally stop growing, and their metabolic activity is reduced to the minimum. Most of the plants enter this dormancy phase in winter, but it is not always the case. The sure sign of dormancy is seeing the leaves falling or the top growth dying down.

If you want to plant a tree during the dormant season successfully, you ought to do it either as soon as the leaves drop, in the fall, or wait until the end of winter and early spring for the period before the bud break. Cool weather conditions will allow your tree to establish roots in the new location you have chosen for it just in time for the spring rains and sunny weather that will initiate and stimulate the new top growth.

As already mentioned the perfect time to plant a tree does not depend solely on season and weather conditions, but also on the type of the tree you want to plant. Unlike bare-rooted trees, balled, burlapped and container trees, can, if healthy, be planted throughout the growing season. However, they might require some additional care as they are already prone to planting stress.

Namely, balled and burlapped trees have likely already lost a substantial portion of their root system while being dug out at the nursery which can initiate the so-called transplant shock which slows their growth and reduces vitality. The container trees are not immune to the transplant shock either especially if you have to cut circling or kinked roots. In order to prevent transplant shock, reduce planting stress and promote fast recovery make sure the planting site is properly prepared and the root is handled carefully. Once again the proper follow-up care is essential too.

A Perfect Place to Plant a Tree

Freshly planted leafless young fruit trees in an early spring garden

Freshly planted leafless young fruit trees in an early spring garden

Before proceeding to plant a tree, proper planning regarding the ideal place for it is necessary. As the proper placement and selection of the tree may increase your property value and overall appeal, you should definitely take time to find the right tree and plant it in the right place. Poorly positioned trees can lead to costly maintenance trimming, but also even damage your home.

When determining where to plant a tree, you should consider a number of factors. Scan the property by looking both up and down and take into account all the overhead and underground utility lines as to avoid any tree and utility conflicts.

Overhead Lines

Overhead utility lines are often overlooked although they are not hard to spot. Considering these utilities is extremely important, especially if you plan to plant tall-growing trees under or near them. If you do not consider these lines beforehand, you might have to have your utility provider prune your tree in the future as to secure safe clearance from the wires. However, pruning may not benefit your tree’s exterior as it can end up having an unnatural appearance. Too frequent and unnecessary pruning might also shorten the life span of a tree.

Moreover, your tall-growing tree may potentially cause service interruptions in contact with the wires if positioned near overhead lines. What is worse, children and adults that climb these trees would be in danger and end up seriously injured or even killed by coming in contact with the wires. For all these reasons listed, select and place the trees properly in and around overhead utilities and thus eliminate potential public safety hazards.

Underground Lines

When positioning the tree take into account that trees consist of much more than what is visible above ground. In many cases, the root system below ground can be quite larger than the branch spread.  As numerous utility services provided today run their wires and pipes below ground, tree roots can interfere with the underground lines and cause problems. On the other hand, the trees that are planted near underground lines might also have their roots damaged when the lines are being dug up for repair.

For this reason, inform yourself regarding the location of any underground utilities before you start planting as this is the time of the greatest danger to the underground. If you do not consider the position of the underground lines you could accidentally dig into them end up injured or having to compensate for their repair and costly service interruption. The best way to get informed is to contact your utility company or utility locator service. Do not just assume that underground utility lines are probably buried deeper than you intend to dig - that could end up causing you many troubles.

General Guide through the Process of Planting Trees

Newly planted trees in a row

Newly planted trees in a row

As we have already mentioned, there are different types of trees, and as a result, the planting process is not universal and completely identical every time but rather differs in the details. Eventually, however, all these trees will end up in a hole, but it should be a properly positioned, sized and dug up. This step, as well as all other important steps needed to complete the process of tree planting successfully, are listed hereafter.

1. Dig an appropriate hole

This is the most important step as most of the people planting a tree tend to make a mistake when digging a hole. The hole is often too deep, and the roots cannot access sufficient oxygen to grow, or too narrow for the roots to expand appropriately and successfully. To avoid these common mistakes, transplant a tree into a hole no deeper than the one it was originally grown in. Another helpful method is to measure the diameter of the root ball, the spread of the roots or the container which has held the tree, and dig a hole at least three times wider. In this way, you are sure to provide enough worked earth for the tree to establish its root structure properly.

Another problem often encountered is “glazing,” especially when making a hole in poorly drained clay soil. To be exact, this kind of soil tends to set quickly, and thus the sides and bottom of the hole become smooth and form a barrier that prevents the water from passing through. If this happens, use a fork to work the bottom and break up this glaze. When the hole is completed, drag the points of the fork along the sides as well. The center bottom of the hole should also be slightly raised to be set higher than the surrounding area allowing the water to disperse evenly. This will prevent the water pooling in the planting zone and damage the roots.

The existing soils on most planting sites in new developments are too compacted and thus unsuitable for healthy root growth. For this reason, the soil in a large area around the tree should be broken up and loosened to provide the emerging roots enough room for expansion and establishment.

2. Identify the trunk flare

The trunk flare is a part of the tree positioned at the base where the roots spread. The trunk should not be fully covered by soil when planting a tree, but rather remain partially visible. Otherwise, you might not be able to set the depth of the hole accurately. Remember to make sure you can see the trunk flare, and if you can not, remove a bit of soil from the top of the root ball and expose it.

3. Prepare the tree for planting

The trunk flare is a part of the tree positioned at the base where the roots spread. The trunk should not be fully covered by soil when planting a tree, but rather remain partially visible. Otherwise, you might not be able to set the depth of the hole accurately. Remember to make sure you can see the trunk flare, and if you can not, remove a bit of soil from the top of the root ball and expose it.

4. Position the tree in the hole

First of all, never lift the tree by the trunk as that can damage it, lift it by the root instead. Before positioning the tree in the hole, remember to double-check if the hole has been dug to the proper depth and then place the tree at the proper height.  It is of greatest importance not to plant the tree too deeply as the majority of its roots typically develop in the top twelve inches of soil. If you do plant your tree too deeply, the new roots will lack oxygen to thrive.

Planting the tree a little high, 2 to 3 inches above the base of the trunk flare, is better than to plant it below its growing level as you have to allow for some settling too. Once positioned, the tree must also be set straight. It is best to have someone assist you with this part by observing the tree from several directions and confirming that it is indeed straight as once you begin backfilling it will be extremely complicated to reposition the tree without damaging it.

5. Fill the hole

Once you are sure you have your tree positioned well, you can proceed with gently and firmly filling the hole. After you fill the hole about one-third full,  you should carefully pack the soil around the base of the root ball making sure you are not damaging the trunk or roots in the process.

Next, fill the remainder of the hole and firmly pack soil as to eliminate air pockets which might lead to roots drying out. You can prevent this problem by adding the soil a few inches at a time and then watering it to settle well. The process ends when the hole is filled, and you are completely sure that the tree is firmly planted. We do not recommend applying fertilizer at the time of planting.

6. Stake the tree

This might not be necessary if your tree has been properly grown and dug at the nursery. Numerous studies suggest that trees develop stronger trunk and root systems and establish more quickly if you do not stake them at the time of planting.

On the other hand, there are situations when staking is essential to protect a young tree on sites where vandalism, lawn mower damage, or extreme weather conditions are concerns. If this applies to you, and you do need to stake your tree there are three methods you can choose among staking, ball stabilizing and guying (staking is the most common method).

In order to complete this process, you need two stakes and a wide, flexible tie material. Use them to fix the lower half of the tree and hold it upright. In this way, you will minimize injury to the trunk and provide necessary flexibility. The support staking and ties can be removed after the first year of growth has passed, and the tree is able to stand on its own.

7. Mulch the base of the tree

Now that your tree is secure in its ideal position you should mulch its base. In case you are wondering, mulch is an organic matter which acts as a blanket to hold moisture and moderates soil temperature extremes. Mulch also reduces competition from grass and weeds.

You can choose a pine straw, leaf litter, shredded bark, composted wood chips or peat moss. Ideally, your layer should be 2 to 4-inch thick. If thicker, your trees might have a problem with oxygen and moisture levels. Beware that mulch should not cover the actual trunk of the tree as that may cause decay of the living bark. For this reason, leave a 1 to 2 inches wide mulch-free area at the base of the tree.

We do not recommend skipping this step as mulching can be very beneficial for the health of your tree. On the other hand, do it properly and use adequate mulching materials or your tree can end up having little use of the mulch, or even be damaged by it.

8. Provide follow-up care

The follow-up care is essential if you intend to grow a healthy and strong tree. First of all the soil around the tree must be kept moist. Do not soak it though as overwatering can lead to leaves turning yellow or falling off. Once a week watering is optimal during moist weather conditions, but you might want to consider more frequent watering during longer periods of hot weather. You can also rely on inspecting if the soil below the mulch is moist or dry and proceed accordingly. During winter, especially if there is snow or extremely low temperatures, you might hold back on the watering.

Pruning is also an important process of the follow-up care. You might even consider pruning right after the planting as to remove any damaged branches but do it sparingly. The corrective pruning is best performed in the period after a full season of growth in the new location.

9. Consider asking for help from professionals

If you notice any problems during the tree’s growth or you find that maintaining mature landscapes is too complicated for you, you can hire a professional Plant Health Care (PHC) experts. Landscape care companies usually do this kind of service. They will inspect your tree and identify any existing problems. Their service can prevent and treat conditions that could be damaging or fatal.


Little girl hugging a tree

If you have completed these suggested steps successfully, you should continue with the adequate care and hold your fingers crossed for advantageous weather conditions that will help your new tree thrive.

Soon enough your tree will grow into a valuable asset and provide you with all the benefits we have already mentioned. If you properly care for it in years to come, you are sure to have a long-lasting companion and a source of beauty and enjoyment.

About the Author

I’m Emily and after a ten year career as a journalist I have moved on to share my passion for gardening. While getting out in the garden is one of my favourite hobbies, and helps me de-stress after a long day in the office, I often found myself frustrated at not getting the results I wanted from my plants. Through blogging, I have uncovered the answer to lots of common problems and now I want to share my knowledge with other horticulture enthusiasts.

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