Planting trees seems like such a simple thing to do, but most of the trees I see have not been planted correctly. A couple of years ago I was teaching a course on trees and wanted a picture showing the right way to plant a tree. I could not find one with Google, which illustrates the lack of understanding among gardeners and professionals.
Most advice on planting trees is wrong.
Everything in the post applies to both trees and shrubs – shrubs are just short trees.
Planting Trees the Right Way
The following steps should be followed when planting all trees and shrubs.
- Water the day before planting. This ensures the tree and roots have absorbed lots of water.
- Remove everything around the root ball including pots, wires, and burlap. They just get in the way of proper root development. Don’t believe people who tell you that you can leave the wire basket on because it rusts away. It might do this in 100 years but by then you will have damaged the tree roots.
What happens if you don’t remove it all? Have a look: Planting Trees – Remove Burlap, String and Wire Basket
- Start removing soil from around the trunk until you find the root flare. This is the point where roots attach to the trunk. When you are finished planting, the root flare should just be visible at the surface of the soil. Don’t bury it. The reason for taking soil off is that many trees from nurseries are planted too deep. If you plant at the same depth as in the pot – the tree may die. Don’t worry if some of the soil falls off the root ball.
- Have a look at the root ball. If you see a lot of circling roots, the tree is root bound and you need to cut the roots so they don’t strangle the tree later in life. Make four vertical cuts about ½“ deep. If the bottom of the root ball has a lot of tangled roots, just cut the bottom 1/2 inch off the root ball.
- Shake off as much loose soil as you can. The nursery soil is so different from your native soil that the two don’t work well together. Don’t worry about exposing some roots.
- Dig a hole that is no deeper than the root ball. The bottom of the root ball should sit on undisturbed soil and the root flare needs to be at the right height. The width can be twice as wide as the root ball – the width is not critical.
- Place the tree in the hole and fill the hole with the same soil that you dug out. If your soil is very rocky you don’t need to add all the stones back into the hole. Don’t add compost, manure, or peat moss. It is important that new roots grow into native soil as quickly as possible. Amending the soil will delay this root growth and it can cause watering problems.
- Do not fertilize or add root stimulators. Plants don’t need fertilizer at planting time and root stimulators don’t work.
- Firm the soil gently with your hands. Never step on the soil since this practice compacts the soil which makes it harder for roots to grow.
- You can create a small ridge around the outside of the hole. This will help water stay around the tree while you are watering it. I usually don’t bother doing this.
- The tree should be standing all on its own and it is very unlikely that it needs a stake. I have planted hundreds of trees and shrubs and only a few needed a stake because they had virtually no roots. If you feel you must stake, then use only one stake and tie the tree loosely, close to the ground. Two feet above the soil level is a good height. It is important that the top of the tree moves easily in the wind. A tree that moves will produce stronger roots than one that is firmly staked. Never leave the stake on for more than a year.
- Water the tree well by using a trickle of water over a long period of time. You want to get the water deep in the hole and saturate the root ball.
- Except for broken branches, do not remove any leaves or branches until the third year after planting. The tree needs all of these as a food source to grow roots. The common practice of top pruning to compensate for a loss of roots is an old myth that is not supported by science.
- Mulch with wood chips. These should be no more than 3 inches thick and should not come in contact with the trunk of the tree. Wood chips next to the tree keep the trunk too wet, which can lead to rot problems. Never pile the mulch high in conical ‘mulch volcanoes’ as in this picture.
- Remove all plant tags. You will note that in the first picture of this post, the tree still has a name tag. It won’t harm the tree, provided that you always make sure it can’t constrict the growth of the tree. Unfortunately, most home owners don’t remember to check this on a regular basis so it is best to remove the tags.
Tree Care After Planting
The tree is planted – now what? The only thing left to do is make sure it does not dry out during the next year. Everybody wants to know how often to water but following a schedule is the wrong approach. You should water well and then wait until the soil starts to dry out. The best way to know when to water is to use the finger method. Stick your finger in the soil and if it feels wet, don’t water. If it is dry, it is time to water.
In colder climates, it is important to keep watering right up to the time that the ground freezes. Trees grow roots best in cold weather and so they need to stay watered. In my zone 5, they should be watered right up to Dec 1, in most years.
After one year the tree should have a good root system. You can check that by gently wiggling the tree. If the root ball moves, there is something wrong. If it does not wiggle it is rooted and you can reduce watering. A bit of drying will encourage the tree to develop deeper roots getting it ready for future times of drought.
Best Time to Plant Trees
This is discussed in the post, Best Time to Plant Trees
The Latest Science in Tree Planting
The above description for planting trees takes into account the latest scientific knowledge about tree planting, and if you follow the above steps you should be successful with your tree. It is the best approach for most homeowners.
However, science does not stand still. There is new evidence that washing all soil off the root ball is an even better approach. See Washing Roots Before planting Trees for more information.
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- Photo source for Planting Trees that are Root-bound, by Root Simple (by permission); http://www.rootsimple.com/2014/04/how-to-deal-with-extremely-root-bound-plants/
- Photo source for Mulch volcano: uacescomm