Plant Your New Tree Properly

Looking to add some beauty and some value to your yard by planting a tree? Seems like planting trees should be pretty straightforward – you dig a hole, drop the tree in, fill up the hole and watch it grow. Now while that pretty much captures the process, there are some finer points that can ensure your tree will grow strong and healthy for a long time, (and at the price of a tree from a nursery that’s what you want) Here’s some tips on planting your tree so it will be adding shade and appeal to your yard for years.

When is the right time to plant your tree?

  • Newly planted trees grow best when they’re not exposed to extremes of heat or cold, so generally this means in the spring and fall. Planting a tree at either of these times gives the roots time to acclimatize and stabilize before they’re put under any stress from the weather. The exception to this spring or fall planting time is in the southern parts of the country where extreme cold is not common. Down there you can plant almost anytime other than in the heat of summer.

Digging the hole

  • Dig the hole for your tree two to three times as big around as the roots of the tree and slightly shallower than the roots go down. To determine how deep a hole to dig, measure from top of plant at soil level to bottom of the pot (or the height of the root ball).
  • A hole this size gives the newly planted tree roots space to grow and stretch out in uncompacted soil after you backfill the hole. If the soil you’re planting in has a high clay content make sure you break up the solid sides of the hole by poking them with a digging fork or the tip of your spade to give the roots some space to grow. Solid clay walls can act almost like a concrete wall to tree roots, restricting their ability to grow and quite likely shortening your tree’s life.
  • Make sure the root crown (the spot where the roots end and the tree trunk begins) will end up one or two inches above the ground, and the bottom of the hole is shaped like and upside down saucer. By preparing a hole like this, you give your tree a solid resting spot on undisturbed ground that won’t sink down when the tree’s weight is placed on top of it. It also helps keeps the roots up near the surface, where they have easy access to oxygen and moisture.

Positioning your tree

  • When you're actually planting your tree is the only chance you will have to orient it, so take a few minutes to get it right. For example, if your tree is lopsided, turn the side with more foliage towards the predominant wind direction, (this will give the sparse side a chance to catch up), or if one side looks better than the other, turn the good side so it’s more visible. (You’ll have to decide whether that means towards your house or the road).
  • Finally, ensure your tree is standing straight upright. If it’s tilting towards one side put some soil under the roots and straighten it up.

Finishing up

  • Use the soil that came out of the hole to backfill around your new tree. Once its in the hole, backfill about one-third up with soil, packing it down with your foot to eliminate air pockets, then water until the entire area is well moistened. Now, completely fill the rest of the hole with soil, again packing down firmly and finish up by watering thoroughly again.
  • When tamping the soil, don’t push down too much, or you could end up packing the soil so tightly that you’ll compress the soil and the roots won’t be able to expand and grow.
  • Many experts say you don’t need to add any amendments to the soil you’re putting back into the hole, but adding some compost or organic fertilizers, (particularly to sandy or clay soils), while not a permanent fix, will help your tree get a solid start in life.
  • Most trees don’t need to be staked if they have been planted properly, however, if your tree trunk is not sturdy enough to stand on it’s own, support it with two stakes (one on each side) for the first year.
  • Use the leftover soil from the hole to create a berm or wall two or three inches high in a circle around the circumference of the hole. This will help to hold water and direct it down toward the new roots. Be sure to give your new tree lots of water for the first few weeks, but don’t continue watering it a lot after that since you need to wean it away from extra watering for the roots to expand and reach out.
  • Adding a two or three inch layer of mulch (shredded cedar or pine) around the base of your new tree will help keep the roots moist and provide lots of nutrients for your new addition. Just don’t put mulch right up against the trunk (leave a space of a couple of inches) or the mulch may promote rot.

One final thought

A couple of weeks before you ever put a shovel into the ground, call your local utilities and ask them to mark their lines and services. In most areas it’s the law to call before you dig, but even if it’s not, it just makes sense to protect yourself and your neighbors.

Murray Anderson is an experienced freelance writer with articles published in both the United States and Canada. He has written on a wide range of topics, but specializes in home maintenance and how to's.