Jonathan Heaton is an ISA certified arborist working for Bartlett Tree Experts in St. Paul, Minn. He can be reached at or on twitter@mnarborist.

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Plant the Right Tree the Right Way for Long-Lasting Beauty
by Jonathan Heaton       #Trees

Spring is here and you may be getting ready to plant a new tree. As the saying goes: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the next best time is now.

Trees are a long-term investment. They take a long time to establish and provide benefits we enjoy. Proper planting practices will help get your trees off to a good start, enhancing your landscape for years to come.

Right Plant / Right Place

The first step to long-term tree success is to evaluate the location for the tree and determine the best tree for the space. Start with testing the soil to determine pH and nutrient levels.

Remember: right tree, right place. Select a tree that will do well in the soil you have, or plan on making the appropriate amendments. Check the texture of the soil and the expected water availability at the site. Too much or too little water can be a big problem for some species.

Watch the planting space over the course of a few days to see how much sunlight the plant will get.

Finally, look at your goals for the tree. Do you want shade, color, nice flowers, etc? Also, keep in mind the mature height and width of the tree in relation to the space available.

Plant Selection

Once you have determined the species, go to the nursery and choose a plant that is in good condition. Beware of good deals and sales—often these are trees that have been exposed to harsh conditions and are less likely to do well.

Choose a plant that has good color and structure. Avoid plants with wounds on the trunk or with severe infestations of mites, whiteflies and other pests. I prefer to buy container-grown trees as opposed to balled-and- burlapped. They are not available as large as balled-and-burlapped, but they tend to establish quicker and have fewer problems.

Prepare Planting Hole

A good rule for planting: “If you plant a $10 tree, dig a $40 hole.” The way you put the tree in the ground makes a big difference. The most common problem I see with planting (even among professional landscapers) is failing to uncover the root flare and planting the tree too deep. This tends to lead to rot in the trunk and girdling roots, which can kill a tree just as it gets large enough to provide significant benefits.

The root flare is the area where the trunk or stem transitions to the roots. It is usually flared like the end of a trumpet. Because of the way trees are grown in a nursery, the root flare is almost always covered by several inches of soil. Before digging the hole, remove all of the soil that is above the root flare. Leave about 1 to 2 inches of the root flare exposed. This determines the depth of the hole.

Dig the hole deep enough so that the bottom of the root flare will be about an inch above grade and two to three times wider than the root ball or container. This helps to create a better space for the new roots to grow and establish. 


After digging, remove the container and carefully put the tree in the hole to avoid tearing roots. If the tree is balled-and-burlapped, put the tree in the hole first, check that it is at the correct depth and remove all rope, burlap and wire. Check to make sure that the tree is straight and at the proper depth. Gently, but firmly, backfill the hole and tamp down the soil. It is important to avoid large air pockets in the planting hole. These dry out roots or cause the tree to shift as the pockets settle.

It helps to use some water as you are filling the hole. In general, it is not recommended to add anything to the soil at the time of planting. However, if the pH is off or if the soil is low in organic matter, I like to mix in pH amendments or compost before filling in the hole. There is no benefit to applying fertilizer at this time.

If the tree is larger and exposed to wind, it is beneficial to stake it in one or two places using a soft, broad material that will not damage the trunk. Don’t leave the stakes on the tree for more than a year. Trees need to be free to develop natural strength to deal with the wind as they mature. Apply 2 to 4 inches of mulch over the planting area for the new tree. Do not put any mulch against the trunk.

Photo courtesy of Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp.

Apply a 2 to 4 inch deep layer of mulch over the planting area. Be sure to keep the mulch a few inches away from the trunk.

After Planting

After the tree is in the ground, follow-up care will help prevent problems. Regular watering is the most important the first three years and during drought and excessive heat spells. Trees benefit the most from infrequent, deep watering. Lawn sprinklers don’t work well for this. Instead, soak the area thoroughly once or twice a week to ensure that the soil is moist 6 to 8 inches deep.

Slow-release watering bags are great for this, but keep in mind that they block the root zone from rainfall, so you need to fill them even when it rains.           

Protect the tree from animals and sunscald by wrapping the trunk with soft cloth or with a wire cage, if needed. In areas that have problems with ambrosia beetles (generally USDA Zone 5 and warmer), I recommend preventative applications of insecticide to the trunk. Ambrosia beetles will lead to quick death. Monitor for other pests such as mites, aphids, scales and leaf-feeding beetles and caterpillars, and treat as needed. New trees need all their energy to get established, so keeping pests to a minimum is helpful.

Simple Steps for Planting Balled-And-Burlapped Trees 

STEP 1 - Use a spade handle or other tool to measure the depth and width of the root ball so you know how big to dig the planting hole.

STEP 2 - The hole should be at least two times (preferably three times) as wide as the root ball and about the same depth.

STEP 3 - Remove any wire or twine around the root ball.

STEP 4 - Carefully place the tree in the planting hole. This is the time to adjust the proper planting height, make sure the tree is straight and level, with the best side showing.

STEP 5 - After the tree is in the hole, remove all burlap. It’s best to wait until the tree is in the hole because the burlap helps hold the root ball together.

STEP 6 - Look for the root flare—where the tree root forms at the base of the trunk. The root flare should be at, or preferably slightly above, the soil surface. It should never be below the soil surface.

STEP 7 - Backfill with the soil that was dug from the hole. Gently tamp the soil down as you backfill, watering as you go to make sure there are no air pockets.
Planting Container-Grown Trees Made Easy

STEP 1 - Remove the tree from the container and loosen or chop off the bottom part of the root ball.

STEP 2 - Score the side of a container-grown root ball to prevent roots from girdling.

STEP 3 - Place the tree in the hole. Adjust the planting depth as needed, making sure the root flare is at, or slightly above, the soil surface.

STEP 4 - Backfill with the soil that was dug from the hole. Gently tamp the soil down as you backfill, watering in as you go to make sure there are no air pockets.


From State-by-State Gardening May/June 2013.
Photos courtesy of David Boone, Arborist Representative with Bartlett Tree Experts unless otherwise noted.


Posted: 04/02/14   RSS | Print


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