Guidelines for Planting Trees

Planting Summary

  • Correct size tree for your location
  • Correct habitat for tree: Soil, sun, moisture
  • Quality seedling, do not plant damaged tree
  • Proper planting depth and width
  • Tree base at ground level on solid foundation
  • Cut away top 1/3 of burlap and remove ties, ropes, or cords
  • Avoid agressive mulching
  • Water 1 inch per week
  • Do not fertilize first year
Sugar Maple

Guideline for Planting Trees

The most important part of any building is a solid foundation.   When it comes to growing trees, the foundation for success lies in the techniques used to plant.  Ag. Extension documents point out that it is not as simple as digging a hole and sticking the tree in the ground.  Several criteria need to be evaluated and specific guidelines need to be followed to ensure the long-term survival of the tree.  Below are guidelines designed to ensure success.

Placement of Trees

Before planting always consider the mature tree size, both height and canopy width, before deciding which tree to plant.  An Oak seedling looks like it will fit nicely into a space when it is first planted, but once mature it may become clear it was a poor choice.  Equally important is the need to consider the soil conditions, sunlight and moisture requirement and normal habitat of the selected tree.  For example, trees requiring a moist environment will struggle and never reach their potential when planted in a dry location.

The quality of the tree seedling or immature tree being planted is very important.  Follow the advice of tree experts who point out that trees with visible defects, substandard branch structure, obvious trunk wounds, pot bound, or otherwise compromised roots should be rejected.

Experts also point out an often-overlooked part of planting is the lack of attention to the actual hole.   The depth at which a tree is planted is critical for the long-term survival of the plant.  The goal is to plant at a depth which puts the base of the trunk at ground level or slightly higher.   If you are planting a balled and burlap, or larger root ball tree that has some weight to it, keep in mind that the center of the hole supporting the new planting needs to be firm so as not to settle and drop the root collar the tree over time.  Overly excavated holes that are back-filled often settle over time dropping the root collar or root flare below proper planting depth.

 Also important is the width of the hole.  Digging a hole that is two to three times as wide as the root ball is a good rule of thumb.  Wider is better.  The wider hole helps the roots to spread out and become established faster.  Keep in mind the sides of a newly dug hole can act as a wall or blockage for young roots, so it is better if that transition zone from newly excavated soil to existing compacted soil is farther away as the plant is getting established.  Once planted, use native soil to back-fill the hole.  Newly planted trees should be watered but not excessively.  Optimally a new planting should get about one inch of rain or supplemental watering each week while it is getting established.  Fall or early Spring planting is also ideal by reducing summer heat stress.  During the next summer season after planting, it is critical that newly planted trees receive adequate water.  Tree watering bags are a great way to support the hydration needs of young trees.

If using a balled/burlap plant, remember to remove any ties, rope, cords and especially wires or nails from around the root collar.  Cutting away the top 1/3 of the burlap is all that is needed.  Do not try and remove all the burlap from around the root ball.  However, if planting a container grown seedling or bagged seedling, carefully cut away all the container or bag.

Tree support systems are not recommended unless the tree is planted on a slope or other problematic location where support might be needed.  If supports are used, they should be removed once the tree is stable or by one year.  Guying wires can girdle and damage young bark.

 After the tree is planted, avoid aggressive mulching.  So called “mulch volcanoes” where mulch is piled up around the tree trunk increase the risk of disease.  Lightly mulching about two inches deep and not physically touching the trunk of the tree is the preferred technique and will help moderate soil temperature, protect feeder roots, reduce weeds, improve soil and help retain moisture.  Mulching also helps protect young trees from weed-eater trimmers and lawnmowers.  Fertilization is not recommenced during the first year after planting.