Old nursery lore has it that you should dig a $10 hole for a $5 tree, the point being the importance of making a generous hole and planting a tree right.
More than once I’ve gone on a tree-buying spree, only to get the plants home and remember that the work has just begun; giving trees a good start by planting them the right way takes time and effort. Here’s how to do it.
Tree Planting Technique
1. If you are planting in sod, use a spade to cut through and pull up the sod.
2. Dig a hole that is twice the diameter of the root ball and the same depth (or a little shallower) than the root ball. The sides of the hole should be more vertical than sloping. Pile the soil on a tarp nearby on the ground.
3. Use a shovel or pickaxe to rough up the sides and bottom up of the hole. This will make it easier for the roots to grow into the surrounding soil.
4. Remove the tree from its container. For potted trees, lay the tree down on the ground and hit the sides and bottom of the pot with a shovel until the soil loosens up. If the tree is in burlap, untie and loosen the burlap; you don’t have to remove the burlap. But if the tree is wrapped in plastic you do have to remove all of that.
5. If the tree roots are wound in a circle or are very tight, you need to release them so they can move out into the soil; otherwise they’ll just keep growing in a ball. You can do this by slicing through the root ball with a knife or spade in a couple of places.
6. Place the root ball in the hole. Make sure the top of the ball, where the roots and trunk meet, is about ½-inch above the soil line. If you have to make a choice, it’s better for the tree to be a little too high than too low.
7. Add soil around the root ball, tamping it down to fill in the air holes. (Roots won’t travel through air pockets.) Water can help settle the soil.
8. Mound some soil around the perimeter of the hole to form a basin so the water won’t run off, and then water slowly and thoroughly.
9. Mulch around the tree to conserve water and keep weeds down. To keep insects at bay, start the mulch six inches away from the trunk. Extend it out to the drip line of the tree.
10. Newly planted trees often need watering during the growing season for the first year or two. Watch for drooping leaves or hard, caked soil. Water slowly and deeply so the water can soak into the ground.
Years ago landscapers staked all newly planted trees, but the thinking on staking has changed. By the time they are ready to be planted, most trees don’t need staking, arborists say. In fact, unnecessary staking can prevent a tree from growing a strong trunk.
However, if the tree was bare root, if it is very large, or in certain soil conditions staking is a good way to support the tree until the roots anchor firmly in the ground.
If you plan to stake, drive metal or wood stakes into the ground before you plant, one on each side of the hole.
Stakes should reach up about one-third of the height of the tree. You can tie the tree to the stakes with commercial tree staking material, wide soft webbing, or fabric. Never use wire around the tree because it can dig into the trunk.
When fastening the ties to the stakes leave a little slack so the tree can move in the wind. Stakes are meant to be temporary; remove them after a year, two years tops.
Want to Learn More About Planting Trees?
The Arbor Day Foundation has video clips on the proper way to plant trees.
Trees play an important role in helping wildlife and conserving resources. That’s why the Natural Resources Conservation Service has instructions on choosing and planting trees.
The North Carolina Cooperative Extension Services has detailed information on planting trees and shrubs.
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