Fall planting project, part 2: Planting a tree

by Caroline Brown

In my last post, I wrote about how to choose the best tree. This post covers handling the tree, selecting the planting site, digging the hole, planting the tree and taking care of it after it’s planted.

Handling the Tree

  • Pick up the tree by its root ball, not its trunk or branches.
  • Plant the tree as soon as you can, but if you can’t plant it immediately, keep the root ball wet and protect its branches from wind and sun.

Selecting the Planting Site

  • Ask yourself if the tree you want to plant is appropriate for the site you’ve chosen. At its maximum height, the tree should not create problems with utility wires or other obstructions.
  • If you think there might be utility cables buried near the proposed planting site, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Check with your local utility companies for their recommendations.
  • The tree shouldn’t be too close to the foundation of your house, garage other buildings, sidewalks or pavement. Tree roots need room to spread. Planting too close to a building or paved area can lead to expensive structural damage or to the premature (and wasteful) removal of the tree.
  • Make sure that the planting site can provide the conditions required by the tree to grow successfully. For example, have the soil pH tested to make sure it’s not too acidic or alkaline. If you’re planting a tree by the street, make sure it can take salt. Finally, make sure that the site has appropriate drainage and enough sun for the tree’s needs.

Digging the Hole

  • Contrary to popular belief, most tree roots spread wide instead of growing deep. The best way to encourage the growth of tree roots is to dig a generously-sized hole with sloped sides—three to five times the width of the tree’s root ball.
  • Remember the adage “plant it high and it won’t die.” The hole should be no deeper than the height of root ball, and the tree’s root flare—the point just above the formation of the roots—should not be buried.

Planting the Tree

  • If planting a burlapped tree, ask the nursery if the burlap is treated. If it is, remove it completely as treated burlap doesn’t disintegrate. If it’s untreated, you can leave it in place, but cut away the top half of it and make sure that it doesn’t protrude from the soil.
  • Sometimes, burlapped trees are contained in wire baskets. It’s probably best to cut the wire away after you have set the tree in the hole, although many experts don’t think this is necessary.
  • Remove trees from their pots gently. Cut the pot to remove it if it doesn’t slide easily. If the roots are encircling the root ball, carefully cut them free with a gardening knife.
  • Fill the remainder of the hole with native soil—if you have compost, make a mix of half compost and half native soil. Gently tamp the soil down around the tree, and give it a good deep watering of twenty to twenty-five gallons.

Post-planting Tree Care

  • Newly-planted trees need mulch, but don’t make the mistake of making “mulch volcanoes” that is piled up to the tree trunk. Instead, make a “mulch doughnut” that covers the root ball completely. Mulch shouldn’t touch the tree trunk—instead, the tree should sit in the middle of the doughnut’s hole, which should ideally be about a foot in diameter.
  • Most experts recommend removing paper or plastic trunk wrapping after the tree is planted.
  • Wind is good for a tree—it helps a tree’s trunk grow strong. Staking is often necessary if the tree is in an unusually windy area, but don’t choke the tree. Leave the stake ties loose enough so that the tree will sway in the wind without the danger of being blown over.
  • Water deeply and generously, once a week. Check with your nursery about the specifics of your tree, but most experts agree that newly-planted trees need between 20 and 25 gallons of water each week—until first frost. If it has rained, dig a few inches beneath the tree’s mulch and see if the soil around its root ball is wet. If it is, you probably don’t need to water.

It seems like a lot to remember, but getting your tree off to a good start is the best way to ensure it will flourish. Take a little time to plant a tree the right way, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the results in the long run. Happy tree planting!

Parts of this article appeared previously in the Kent County Daily Times.


6 Comments to “Fall planting project, part 2: Planting a tree”

  1. Howdy! Here’s a little tree-planting question for you… we get live Christmas trees each year and plant them out around the yard. Last winter is when I first moved out to PA, and we were fortunate to have a small break in the cold when the ground was soft enough for me to put in the tree. So far, it seems strong and healthy!

    But what would you recommend if the ground is too hard to plant our Christmas tree this year? (The Farmer’s Almanac predicts a cold winter). Would the tree survive in the pot outside until spring planting, or would it freeze to death? Would it be enough to keep it near the house to give it a little added warmth and protection?

    Back in Western Washington, the winters were much milder, and I never really had to worry about whether or not we’d be able to get the tree back in the ground!

    Have a great day,

  2. Hi JLB, I wouldn’t have figured it out on my own, but those in the know say to pre-dig the hole before the ground freezes over & save the dirt. Another one says to put the tree outside in a sheltered area and make sure the pot/rootball has a lot of protection (maybe mulch, or a lot of burlap).

    Planting a Christmas tree sounds like it’s hard to do successfully b/c you’re planting it at the wrong time of the year….What if you planted it now outside, and had an outside tree? Anyway, here are some links to some good tips on how to do it:

    Keep me posted on how it goes with this!

  3. Hi Caroline,

    This is a great article….thanks!

    I have a question, more a curiosity than a question, maybe….

    You said: “Contrary to popular belief, most tree roots spread wide instead of growing deep. The best way to encourage the growth of tree roots is to dig a generously-sized hole with sloped sides—three to five times the width of the tree’s root ball.”

    I have heard that the growth direction of the roots behaves much like the branches; if a tree grows tall and thin (say, like a poplar), the roots are generally long and deep but not so wide; if a tree’s branches grow outward but the tree is not so tall, the roots also will spread horizontally underground for the most part, but not penetrate the land so deeply.

    Is any of that true, or just a myth?

  4. Thanks – those are all great ideas! I never thought about pre-digging the hole! You’ve got a point about being in the off-season for planting… I suppose that I’m still working from the “mild Washington winter” book, and I got lucky last year. I have considered planting an “early Christmas tree,” but it sure it fun to get it all dressed up for the solstice… I’ll be sure to let you know what we decide.

    Thanks again for the tips and the links!


  5. PS – I love the new banner – gorgeous trees! I am so excited for my first east coast autumn! 😀

  6. Hi Michelle, That’s what I used to think, but in my tree class I learned that roots growing the same way as the branches is indeed an “urban legend”–I guess more like a “forest legend.” I think with a few of exceptions, tree roots generally grow shallow (18-24″ deep) and wide.

    Hi JLB, I have never seen fall in PA but in other areas of the east coast it’s certainly beautiful. I changed the banner to get myself in a fall mood–I’m reluctant to say goodbye to summer just yet.

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