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How to Plant a Tree

The key to a thriving, beautiful, mature tree is knowing what you’re doing on planting day. It’s all about selecting the best tree, digging the hole the right way, handling the tree properly and placing it in the right location. Here are 10 of the best tips for planting and caring for your new tree so you can enjoy it for years to come.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

How to Plant a Tree

The key to a thriving, beautiful, mature tree is knowing what you’re doing on planting day. It’s all about selecting the best tree, digging the hole the right way, handling the tree properly and placing it in the right location. Here are 10 of the best tips for planting and caring for your new tree so you can enjoy it for years to come.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Overview

If you want your newly planted tree to grow and be healthy, you can't just stick it in a hole in the ground and hope for the best. We'll show you how to plant a tree that will thrive, extend its roots and enhance your landscape. The tree shown is a Summercrisp pear tree, but the steps are the same for any variety.

Pick a tree variety that grows well in your area and soil conditions (a nursery can help you with this). If you're planting a fruit tree, find out if you need to plant a second one within a certain distance for pollination. And ask the nursery (or research online) how big the tree will be when it's full grown. Then plant it far enough away from your house so that once the tree reaches maturity, its branches won't scrape against your siding or roof.

Here are the steps to follow when planting a tree, starting at the nursery and ending in your yard.

Dr. Jeff Gillman.

Meet the expert

Jeff Gillman is a true tree nerd. He has a Ph.D. in horticultural science, is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota and is the author of five books on gardening. Check out his Facebook page, The Garden Professors, for lots of helpful tips on landscaping.

Tip 1: Don't choose a problem tree

You’ll be living with this tree for a long time, so make sure you plant one you won’t grow to detest in a few years. Trees to avoid include cottonwoods, which have invasive root systems, messy mulberries and stinky female ginkgoes. Before you buy a tree, research its benefits and potential negatives so you won’t resent it later on. Contact your local extension service for a list of recommended trees for your area.

Remove the plastic as soon as you get home, even
if you won't plant the tree until the next day.
The plastic can suffocate the tree if it's left
on too long.

Things to do at the nursery

First, ask what kinds of trees will thrive in your yard. Bring a soil sample, describe sunlight characteristics, water availability and typical yard uses.

Then, when you buy your tree, ask the nursery to wrap it with plastic for the drive home (our local nursery did it for free). That way the branches are grouped tightly together so they won’t be damaged by wind in the back of a pickup or during unloading. The plastic also keeps the soil from spilling out of the container (although a little water may leak).

Place the tree on its side in the truck bed, strap down the container and wedge scraps of wood under both sides of the container to keep it from rolling around during the drive home. If you’re hauling the tree in a van or an SUV, put plastic on the floor to catch any water leaks.

Tip 2: Plant in the spring or fall

The ideal time to plant a tree is in early spring before “bud break” or in the fall before the tree goes dormant. Cool weather allows the tree to establish roots in its new location before new top growth puts too much demand on it. Some trees establish better if planted in early spring. These include oaks, pines, dogwoods, American holly, willows and black gum. A tree planted during the hot summer months can get stressed by the heat and will be harder to keep watered properly.

If you insist on a summer planting, keep the soil moist but not sodden. During dry, sunny weather, that might mean watering a few times a day. If you have clay soil and the ground stays damp 3 in. below the surface, you can cut back on watering.

Dial before you dig
It's always a good idea, and in some areas required by law, to get the utilities marked before you start digging. You don't want to get the shock of your life as you’re digging the hole for your new tree! Just dial “811” on your phone to get routed to your local “One Call Center.” Local operators will take your location information and make arrangements to have all buried utilities marked. Make sure you call 48 to 72 hours before you plan to dig to allow enough time for all the local utility companies to show up. For more information go to call811.com.

Tip 3: Don’t plant too close to a building

Plant a tree with its mature size in mind. Many arborists suggest planting a tree no closer to a structure than one half of its expected mature canopy spread. “I actually like to provide even more room,” says Jeff. “Tree roots and branches need space. Pruning a tree planted too close to a structure to keep it from damaging your roof, foundation or siding can damage or disfigure the tree.”

Also, some trees develop large surface roots that can crack or lift driveways, patios and sidewalks. If that’s a concern, plant well away from these surfaces or choose a tree less likely to produce above-ground roots. Also, watch out for overhead power lines—most shade trees will grow at least to the height of residential power lines. Choose shorter, ornamental trees for these areas.

Tip 4: Match the tree to the planting site

Plant a tree that will grow well given your hardiness zone, existing soil conditions (test if you’re not sure), sun exposure and available moisture. “Tree species that are native to the place where you live are probably well adapted to the climate in your part of the country,” says Jeff. “If you’re planting a nonnative species, research its site requirements carefully.” One of the best ways to check how trees will do on your land is to observe species growing naturally in the vicinity with the same conditions.

Tip 5: Dig a broad, saucer-shaped hole

Dig a saucer-shaped hole three to five times the diameter of the root-ball (or the spread of the roots for a bare-root tree). This allows the roots to easily penetrate the softened backfill and properly anchor the tree. If you’re planting in clay or wet soil, Jeff suggests using a garden fork or your spade to roughen the bottom and sides of the planting hole to avoid “glazing.” “Glazing happens when the sides and bottom of a hole become so smooth and compacted that water can’t pass easily through the soil,” says Jeff. “In extreme situations, it could block roots from penetrating the sides of the planting hole.”

Tip 6: Don’t plant too deep

You want to plant the tree so its root collar—the trunk flare right above the root system—is about 1 in. above ground level. Take the tree out of the container (slitting the container sides) or cut away the wire cage and burlap. Then measure the distance from the root collar to the bottom of the root ball and dig the hole to that depth.

Don’t rely on the container size, the wires or the wrapping around the roots as an indication of the depth you want to plant your tree. If the tree is planted too shallow, the roots could be exposed above the ground, especially as the tree grows. But don’t plant it too deep either (a common mistake!). The roots need oxygen to get established, and there’s more oxygen near the surface.

“If you plant the root-ball of a tree too deep,” says Jeff, “new roots can girdle the trunk and may also suffer from a lack of oxygen.” He suggests planting a tree so the root collar—where the uppermost roots attach to the trunk—is about an inch above the soil level.

“In many cases, containerized trees from nurseries are planted too deep,” he says. “Don’t go by the soil level in the container. Dig down into the planting medium to find the root collar so you know how deep to plant the tree.”

If you’re planting a bare-root tree, leave a cone of soil at the bottom of the planting hole and set the root system on top. Place the handle of your shovel flat across the hole from one side to the other to make sure the crown is level with the surrounding soil. You should be able to partially see the root collar, or trunk flare, after the tree is planted.

Tip 7: Set the roots free

Before placing the tree in the hole, break up the tightly wound root ball and carefully fan out the roots. Don’t pull too hard or the roots will break. It’s OK if some of the soil in the root ball crumbles and falls off. It’ll help free the roots. Pulling apart the root ball encourages the roots to expand into the surrounding soil.

“If the roots circle the root-ball, but none are thicker than a pencil, use your fingers to tease the root-ball apart,” says Jeff. If the tree is severely root-bound and has circling roots larger than a pencil in diameter, Jeff recommends using a newer method called box cutting. “To box-cut a root-ball, use a pruning saw to shave off all four sides, creating a square root-ball.”

Once the roots are free, you’ll have to be careful when you handle the tree, or what’s left of the root ball will fall apart and you could tear the smaller roots. Never pick up the tree by its trunk. Instead, support the tree from under or from the side of the root ball.

Set the tree in the center of the hole. Again, keep the root collar about 1 in. above ground level. If it’s too high, remove the tree and dig the hole a little deeper. If the trunk flare is too low, add soil under the roots. Cut away all rope, twine, wire, staples and burlap before backfilling (you can leave natural burlap underneath the root-ball if you can’t cut it all away).

Tip 8: Backfill with the dirt you took out of the hole

For years, experts recommended adding compost, peat moss or fertilizer to the planting hole. However, most now agree that you shouldn’t backfill with anything other than the original soil from the planting hole (despite what the plant tag says). Soil amendments in the planting hole can discourage the tree roots from spreading into the surrounding soil and can cause poor water drainage. Also, in some instances, fertilizers can kill young roots.

Use a spade to backfill around the tree with the dirt you excavated when you dug the hole. Be sure to keep the tree properly in place (right depth, straight up and down) as you backfill. Soak the hole as you backfill. Add backfill until the hole is filled.

Slip a corrugated tree guard over the trunk. It'll keep
weed trimmers, lawnmowers and pesky
animals from damaging the bark.

Keep your young bark safe

Weed trimmers and rodents and other animals can kill a tree by damaging the bark. Install a plastic guard (about $3.50 at nurseries) over the trunk to protect it. Besides safeguarding against weed trimmer strings and critters, the guard protects young trees against “frost cracking,” which happens when the side of the tree that gets more sun grows at a faster rate than the shady side.

Tip 9: Mulch wide, but not deep

Mulch holds moisture, moderates soil temperatures, reduces competition from grass and weeds, and prevents lawn mowers and trimmers from nicking the trunk. Mulch also helps insulate the ground, keeping it cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

Make a 3-ft. (or larger) circle of mulch 2 to 4 in. deep around the trunk. But don’t mulch too deep. This can create surface drainage problems and deprive roots of oxygen. Keep the mulch 3 or 4 in. from the trunk to avoid disease, rot and pest problems. Mulch, like other organic matter, can have bacteria and fungus, which can spread to the tree and harm or even kill it.

Some good mulch choices are shredded bark or composted wood chips. “Don’t use woven or plastic landscape fabric or other weed barriers underneath the mulch,” cautions Jeff. “These can cause major problems later on as seeds grow roots down through these materials and anchor themselves into the barriers.”

Tip 10: Check your soil before watering and water carefully

There’s no magic formula for how much water to give your tree in its first year, so don’t rely on a “rule of thumb” for watering. Too little water can kill a tree. But overwatering in clay soil can cause root rot, which can also kill a tree. You’ll need to water your new tree until the root system is well established.

The right amount of water depends on the weather conditions, your soil and the planting site. The most reliable method for knowing when to water is to stick a popsicle stick (or your finger) 2 to 3 in. into the ground. If the soil is damp down 3 in., you’re giving it enough water. If not, water once or twice a day—whatever’s needed to keep the soil damp but not saturated around the root-ball. Allow the soil’s surface to begin to dry out between waterings.

For the first few weeks, you may have to water every few days depending on the weather. After that, longer (deeper), less frequent watering is much better than shorter (quicker), frequent watering. To help the tree create deep roots to resist drought and wind, Jeff suggests encircling it with a soaker hose a few feet out from the trunk and running it a trickle for an hour.

“Overwatering can be as bad or worse than underwatering,” says Jeff. “If you’re watering more than twice a week, there’s a good chance you’re overwatering.”

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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

    • Tape measure
    • Wheelbarrow
    • Spade

You'll also need a garden hose when planting. A soaker hose will make life easier after the tree’s been planted, otherwise keep using your garden hose.

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

    • Tarp
    • Tree
    • Mulch
    • Tree guard

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