Learn how to turn a skinny sapling into a healthy adult tree. With a good location, the right size hole and the right soil, even an anemic seedling can develop into a thick-limbed, leafy shade tree in just a few years.
Fall is the ideal time of year to plant your maple tree—or any other tree, for that matter. The cool weather of fall gives roots a chance to grow, develop and get established without the stress of developing new leaves or fruit. Don't be surprised to find that you'll have to wait for a whole growing season to see significant growth. In fact, with fruit trees, it's a good idea to pinch off any blossoms or fruit the first year so the tree can channel its energy into establishing its root system instead of developing fruit.
The basic planting techniques are the same for all trees. For starters, pick a well-drained area (one where water doesn't pond after rains) in a sunny location so the tree will get the light it needs to thrive. Keep in mind the mature size of the species you're planting and consider whether nearby trees, buildings and power lines could cause problems later.
When you've picked your planting spot, first dig a 1-ft. square, 1-ft.-deep drainage test hole, fill it with water and go have a cup of coffee. If there's still water in the hole after about an hour, you have heavy, poorly drained soil. If so, use the same directions as for well-drained areas, but dig the hole only as deep as two-thirds the height of the root ball. Then heap dirt over the root ball before mulching. That way, some water is directed away from the hole so the root ball won't drown in trapped water.
For well-drained areas, dig a hole 1 to 2 ft. wider than the root ball and as deep as the height of the root ball of the tree. Your tree will be sold either in a plastic container or bundled in burlap. Rough up the sides of the hole with the tip of the shovel, especially when planting in heavy soil. It'll make it easier for roots to penetrate the surrounding soil. Carry the tree by picking up the container or the burlapped root ball. Never carry the tree by the trunk; you could damage delicate roots.
If you have a burlapped tree, lower the burlapped root ball into the hole. Burlapped trees have a wire basket to hold the root ball together. You can leave the wire basket in place; the roots will grow through it and the rotting burlap. If your tree has synthetic burlap, you'll have to cut it all away after you lower it into the hole. If you have a container-grown tree, cut away the sides of the container and peel them back to expose the root ball. Lift the ball from the container and lower it into the hole.
Hold the tree straight while you fill the hole with soil. Tamp the soil down around the ball with the end of a 4x4 until the soil level is about three-fourths the depth of the hole (but be careful not to damage roots). Cut away the exposed burlap in the top one-fourth of the hole. Fill the hole with water to allow the soil to settle and to remove trapped air. After the water drains, finish filling the hole with soil and lay a 3- to 6-in. bed of mulch around the base of the trunk to help retain soil moisture. Always use native soil to fill around the root ball. Filling with enriched soil will pamper the roots and they'll refuse to penetrate poorer surrounding soil to establish a good root base.
Don't fertilize your tree this fall. Instead, apply a 10-10-10 fertilizer next spring and every year thereafter. Read the instructions on the fertilizer label to determine how much to use.
The key to a successful adult tree is properly preparing the hole for the sapling. Setting the tree at the right depth and surrounding it with plenty of loose soil creates a good environment for root growth; water, sun and an annual dose of fertilizer will do the rest.
Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.
You'll also need a cutting tool of some kind for the burlap and container, if your tree is planted in one.
Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.