Tree Planting Basics

by Karen Weiland, Advanced Master Gardener

Arbor Day is on Sunday, April 28th an I cannot think of any better way to celebrate it than to plant a tree or two.  Along with adding beauty and value to ones home, trees also provide shade and wind protection for many years if given the proper start.  

A few things to consider before actually planting the tree is location, season and type of tree.

Choose a tree that will fit your landscape and that will grow well in the type of soil that you have.  Consider how far the roots will grow when planting a tree near a house foundation and factors such as light, availability of moisture, hardiness and drainage.  And as I’m sure you all know, some trees can be a bit dirtier than others with their falling nuts and spent blooms. Consider how much work you want to put into cleaning up after what you plant.

Trees can be purchased as bare root, balled and burlapped or containerized.  The bare root kind should be planted before the tree breaks dormancy (before leaves break bud).  Balled and burlapped and containerized trees may be planted any time the soil can be worked.  Keep in mind that a tree planted in the heat of the summer will be stressed much more than one that is planted in the spring or fall.

Lay out a sheet of plastic or canvas or have a wheelbarrow nearby to throw dirt into.  Dig the hole two times as big around as the root spread of the tree you are planting.  Only dig as deep as the height of the root ball.  You will want solid, undisturbed soil under your tree so that it does not settle after the tree is planted.   Be sure to locate the root flare of the tree.  The root flare, also called the trunk flare, is where the first main roots attach to the trunk.  Make sure there is not excessive soil built up around the trunk of the tree that could lead to eventual decline of the tree.

The roots on containerized trees can be rather dense so loosen them by making several vertical cuts around the root ball and then gently pull some of the roots away from the ball.  If the root system has begun to encircle the root ball, it is important to shave the root system with a hand saw before planting.  Cut off the outer inch of the roots all the way around the sides and bottom. This will encourage lateral rooting into the soil.  According to the University of Missouri Extension website, recent studies have shown that trees root much more slowly in high-density soil than in loosened soil and in most soils, 90 percent of the actively absorbing root tips are located in the upper 12 inches of the root ball.  Taking this information into account,  taper the sides of your hole to give the upper root system some loose soil to grow into.

Backfill the hole using the same soil you took out, to within one half to three quarters full and fill with water.  I mix a root stimulator product that I bought at a local nursery, with my water.  Once that has drained, finish filling with the remaining soil.  Water again and do not tamp the soil.  Finish with a 2-3 inch layer of mulch, keeping it away from the trunk of the tree.  Do not create a sloping mound of mulch (aka volcano mulching) around the trunk as this will lead to a slow death for your tree.  To keep weeds from growing through the mulch, lay down multiple layers of newspaper.   Mulching will also help keep the roots cooler in the summer and retain moisture.   Keep a close eye on your tree for any signs of drought.  Depending on how much rainfall is had, you may need to water regularly during the first couple of years.


As always, Happy Gardening!

More information about tree planting and gardening subjects is available online at   The Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service can be reached at 499-6334 in LaGrange Co., 636-2111 in Noble Co., 925-2562 in DeKalb Co. and 668-1000 in Steuben Co.