Planting Trees the Right Way

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Robert Pavlis

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 by Robert Pavlis
Planting Trees the Right Way, by Robert Pavlis

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.
Planting trees that are root-bound
Planting trees that are root-bound, by Root Simple
  • 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.
Mulch volcano - planting trees
Mulch volcano – planting trees

 

  • 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.

Soil Science for Gardeners book by Robert Pavlis

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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References:

  1. 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/
  2. Photo source for Mulch volcano: uacescomm
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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

14 thoughts on “Planting Trees the Right Way”

  1. I would like to add that in Southern Alberta where we regularly get 80km and greater winds, we need to put 2 some what loosely tied stakes on a tree. They are placed at 45* angles from the tree in a west to southwest direction.

    Reply
  2. Before learning about planting I bought into the conventional wisdom of using fertilizer on trees. I bought dlow release tabs and added them to the planting hole outside the root area. Will this be detrimental to the new tree or just a waste of money? Thank you

    Reply
  3. Hi Robert
    We have been following you for years and have spread your word which is excellent. Just to be sure when planting a tree with your system of removing as much soil as possible, does this system pertain to a tree that is already leafed out? Thank you

    Reply
    • I would not remove as much soil as possible. I remove as much soil as I can easily remove without a lot of damage.
      If a tree has leafed out and it is spring, I would do the same. If the tree had leafed out a while ago and now it is summer, I tend to leave it in the pot, sink it in the soil up to the top of the pot rim, and plant in fall.

      Reply
  4. Thank you, Robert, for an excellent article! In north Texas with heavy clay soils and hot weather, proper watering is the key. I have found the the entire root ball must be soaked well along with the surrounding soil, when it needs it. The finger test is as good as any for know when.
    I have seen just as many trees die from too much water in the heavy clay. They sit in a bowl of water and the root suffocate.
    99% percent of the trees that die, die from improper watering. Even if they are planted incorrectly, they will usually make it if they are watered right.
    Root flare Exposure is the second most important item. We see many trees 5-10 years after planting that have girdling roots that had their origin in the pots. It’s been good business for us to uncover the root flares on these trees, but not all can be corrected 10 years after planting and this problem is easily prevented at planting time.
    One additional trick that we have found success with in heavy clay and heavily compacted soils, is to create radial trenches of loosened soil running out form the planting hole to all the roots to escape the hole and grow into un-compacted soil.
    Thank you again, Robert, for an excellent description of how to plant a tree.

    Reply
  5. Agree with everything and I also have a similar diagram and planting specs for my soil reports. Only one thing and that would be to not place the native soil on top of the rootball because it can cause an interface issue and prevent water from going into the rootball. This is at least an issue in my area where trees are grown in boxes with a high organic mix. Back east where trees are grown in soil and then burlapped it’s probably not as mush as an issue because soil textures are likely somewhat similar. Landscape Architects still struggle with the concept of not using OM in the planting pit and also fertilizer or myco.

    Reply
    • If you ” not place the native soil on top of the rootball”, what do you use? I would not put anything other than native soil on top.

      If the root ball soil is very different, removing some of it might help.

      Reply
  6. Very interesting read . I
    Must admit I was one of the wrong tree/ shrub planters . Glad I read this post as I’m putting in a new shrub garden this year and it would of been planted wrongly .. Now I know . Thks Robert your articles are always very informative .

    Reply
  7. Very interesting article and website. Like many, I have always assumed that soil amendment is an important part of the planting process. But now I will certainly try out what you say. A couple questions I have, though, are 1. what if your soil is deficient in key nutrients, such as potassium? Should you add an organic fertilizer? When – when planting? Thereafter? Is there a way to improve your soil over time, perhaps by adding a top layer of compost and letting it work itself into the ground – or would this just encourage roots to stay near the surface? Thanks in advance, and keep up the great work!

    Reply
    • If a soil test shows a deficiency, add the missing nutrients. For potassium I would use potassium nitrate and add it to the whole garden. If you are deficient, other plants need it too.

      Then mulch everything with compost or manure. Nature moves nutrients deeper. And potassium travels fairly quickly through soil with rain and watering.

      Reply
  8. I have to admit I do not use any tree beyond a one gallon container plant bought from any Nursery. I just have always hated the spiraling root systems. Even then I am particular about what the roots loook like at the bottom. If they are too densely spiraled and concentrated at the bottom of the container, then I will cut them off so that the remaining roots in the pot will grow downward into the soil. I try not to damage very much of the capillary soil pores below when digging the hole. I dig just enough to plant and rarely amend if ever. Only clay soils and never fertilize.

    Unfortunately there is a need for larger specimens because commercial projects generally demand an instant landscape look. But my trees have always caught up with or surpassed larger tree specimens. Of course there are some exceptions like many riparian trees, but small one gallon has been my choice for some decades now. Shrubs are a different matter in urban landscaping, but not in wild outplanting.

    Reply
    • I agree. There have been several studies that show small trees catch up to big trees in about 4 – 5 years, and usually end up being much healthier in the long run.

      The problem is that people want quick landscapes. So it can be hard to find 1 gal trees.

      Reply
  9. Excellent post,as i am going to be planting a lot of shrubs later this year.The information that you have provided will ensure my success,thank you so much.

    Reply

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