After you have researched and selected the best tree to plant in your yard, it’s time to get it in the ground! Digging the right-size planting hole is the key to getting your new tree off to a good start, but there are a few other factors in play, too, such as timing.
Fall and Spring are the best times to do your digging. That’s because hot summer temperatures can stress new plants, especially if they don’t get much rain.
So whether this is your first tree planting, or you’ve planted a forest by now, we’re always learning. Knowing how to plant a tree the right way … will ensure your efforts will not be in vain.
I’ve assembled this step-by-step guide to get your new tree off to a great start!
How To Plant A Tree
1.) Assemble Your Tree Planting Materials:
- The Tree (obviously ; )
- A Spade or Sod Cutter
- Round Shovel
- Tarp or Plastic to Hold Soil
- Garden Hose / Bucket / Soaker Hose
- Scissors or Knife
- Stake (if needed)
2.) Dig A Proper Hole
*** Before you start, make sure you call your local Diggers Hotline (in Illinois it’s JULIE – Call 811 or 1-800-892-0123) to place a free locate request to verify that there are no underground utility lines, like gas lines or electric power lines, where you are going to dig.
Now let’s get started … first, prepare a hole two to three times as wide as the root ball of your tree. Dig down to about the depth of the root ball so when it’s resting on the bottom of the hole, the tree is at the same level with the ground as it was in its container. Handle the root ball carefully to keep it intact while you place it in the hole. Once it’s in, turn it so the best side of the tree is facing the direction you want.
With burlapped root balls, cut the twine and remove the burlap (or at least push it to the bottom of the hole). It’s okay to leave some burlap in the hole to decompose. However, remove all plastic or treated burlap.
For potted trees, to encourage root growth, tease the outer roots from the soil. If the roots are tightly matted, use a knife to score the root mass in several places and gently loosen the root ball. This won’t harm the plant and will encourage new root growth.
Did You Know … Planting too deep is the top reason that trees and shrubs die. So take your time with this step – it helps to have another person assisting to eyeball the hole, lift the tree, and guide it into the hole.
A good way to approach this is to look for the flare of the trunk near the soil level. Don’t place the tree in the planting hole so deep that any part of that flare is covered with soil. You want the root mass to sit on undisturbed soil. When planting is complete, the trunk flare should be slightly above the existing soil grade.
3.) Backfill Soil into the Hole
The thinking on backfill has changed in recent years. Although it was once common to modify the backfill soil with amendments — such as compost, peat moss, aged manure and other ingredients — it is now considered best practice to leave the backfill unaltered or add minimal amendments.
Instead, simply break up the clumps in existing soil, remove any rocks and backfill. This encourages roots to spread out into the native soil, rather than staying within the confines of the planting hole.
Add backfill soil to your planting hole until it comes about halfway up the root ball. Use your foot or hands to firm the soil and eliminate air pockets. Make sure the trunk is vertical and confirm that the trunk flare will sit slight above soil grade once backfilling is complete. Continue adding backfill and packing it down until you’ve reached the top of the root ball, taking care not to cover the trunk flare.
4.) Water Your Newly Planted Tree
It’s helpful to construct a 3 – 4″ high ridge of soil around the outer edge of the planting hole. This berm will create a basin to hold irrigation water and concentrate it over the roots. Use a hose / buckets to fill the basin, then allow the water to soak it, repeating several times.
Or, let the water run at a trickle for 15 to 30 minutes to ensure that the entire root zone is moist. The goal is to ensure even watering so the soil is drenched and any large air pockets are eliminated.
Did You Know … The best and easiest way to water is to put the process on auto-pilot. The key to proper watering and establishment is slow and deep irrigation. It’s not practical to do that by hand. The only way to establish trees properly through irrigation is with soaker hoses or drip irrigation.
The slow and deep irrigation allows the soil around the roots to saturate, so the roots have time to absorb the moisture, while avoiding excess runoff. Short, manual blasts of water from an overhead hose or sprinkler system simply don’t come close to providing the same effectiveness for water delivery.
Generally, I water newly planted trees every day for about the first week. For the next two weeks, I ease off to about every other day. Then gradually ease back from there.
5.) Add Mulch
Starting about two inches from the trunk (leave this area exposed), place roughly three inches of mulch around the tree, at least out to the drip line. Further is better. Mulch helps retain much needed moisture, prevents weeds, and helps keep roots cooler near the surface … a very important requirement for newly installed plants. Never mound mulch up like a volcano!
6.) Staking – if needed
Staking at planting time is not always necessary. Consider the stability of the rootball, trunk size and strength, direction of prevailing winds, canopy size and density when determining whether or not to stake. If in doubt, ask a nursery professional.
Natural flexing is necessary for the plant to develop a normally strong trunk and roots. Use staking only if needed to hold the tree up until the roots have become established (usually within a year).
Another step may come to your mind … fertilizing. We do not recommend fertilizing newly planted trees during their first year of growth. Let them get acclimated to their environment through successful establishment.
How To Plant A Tree Summary
While all the above steps are essential, your active engagement in monitoring newly planted trees for signs of distress over time will be the ultimate deciding factor in your tree planting success. Make any necessary adjustments in real-time, and you can likely reverse a potentially downward spiral … into a tree that will live a happy and very long life!