How to Plant a Tree

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Tree planting is easy, but there is a right and a wrong way to do it. Keep these tips in mind for successful plantings.

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There is a popular saying about planting trees: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. Planting a tree today is an investment in the future. Mature trees are the heroes of any landscape: They add shade, lend character, and beautify a landscape. But they take a long time to mature. Tree planting is easy, but there is definitely a right and a wrong way to do it. Keep reading for eight easy-to-follow steps on how to plant a tree so that your planting project is successful.

How to Plant a Tree
1. Find the right planting location

The first step in tree planting is finding the right place for your tree. Make sure there are no utility wires overhead, and no underground utilities below — especially sewer or gas lines — close to your planting area. For shading your home, find a spot between 15 and 20 feet from the house. Smaller ornamental trees can be planted less than 15 feet, but large trees need to be at least 20 feet away.

How to Plant a Tree
2. Choose a tree species

A little research will go a long way when it comes to choosing the right type of tree for your yard. A few factors to take into consideration:

How to Plant a Tree
How to Plant a Tree
3. Dig a hole

The dimensions of the hole you dig are important. Ideally, the hole should be broad but shallow, with sides that slope like a bowl. A general rule is to dig a hole only as deep as the root ball, but at least two to three times wider. With containerized trees, you can dig a hole three to four times wider than the container. If you are planting a bare root tree, use the existing roots as a guide for depth and then dig much wider than you think is necessary.

How to Plant a Tree
4. Place the tree

When moving a tree with a root ball, lift and carry it from the roots, instead of using the trunk as a handle, which can pull the root ball away from the trunk. For burlapped trees, place the wrapped root ball into the hole and then remove all of the material containing the roots. For containerized trees, if the roots have formed the shape of the container, use a utility knife to cut them. Cut an X across the base and then make several vertical cuts around the circumference of the root ball. For bare root trees, spread the roots out and have one person hold the tree in place while another fills in soil around the roots until it stands on its own.

How to Plant a Tree
5. Fill in the hole

The most important part of this step is making sure that the root flare — where the tree gets wider at the base — is just above the soil, not below. Planting a tree too deep will set it up for failure. Add soil to the hole carefully, packing soil first around the root ball (starting with the base) to stabilize it. Check from every angle to ensure that the tree is straight before filling the hole in completely — it’s easiest to straighten it out now, not later. Eliminate air pockets by filling the soil in firmly, and tamping the soil down lightly with the flat of a shovel or the bottom of your boot.

How to Plant a Tree
6. Create a basin, water the tree, and add mulch

As you fill in the last of the hole, make a slight depression around the tree, with the outer edge of the hole forming a lip. Water the tree heavily, allowing the water to fill the basin and then to drain completely. Once the tree is well watered-in, add a layer of mulch several inches deep, taking care that it is not touching the trunk.

How to Plant a Tree
7. Add support or protection, if needed

Newly planted saplings sometimes need a little extra support. If the planting location is exposed to high winds, it may be necessary to stake it to keep it perfectly straight and stable. Using three stakes and special webbing or rubber tubing designed not to damage the bark is optimal. Staking should be removed after the first year in the ground.

In areas with a lot of deer or rabbits, you may want to consider installing a plastic or metal mesh cage to protect the young tree. Hungry wildlife can destroy a newly-planted tree overnight, especially in the winter when their normal food supply isn’t available.

How to Plant a Tree
8. Water regularly

When the weather is dry, water your tree at least once every 7 to 10 days. The soil around it should be moist but not soggy. Do not fertilize the tree for the first year, but feel free to top off the planting area with a couple inches of compost in the spring.

How to Plant a Tree

If you follow all of these steps faithfully, you should be able to watch your baby tree grow steadily. Once a sapling takes off, you’ll be amazed at how quickly they grow. Plant trees today and you will be grateful later. A beautiful mature tree will enrich the landscape for a lifetime or longer.