All You Should Know About Tree Planting


All You Should Know About Tree Planting

All You Should Know About Tree Planting

Tree Selection

Prioritize your Landscaping

When landscaping a new home on a limited budget, trees should be the first things planted — they provide the ‘backbone’ to home landscaping. It’s more economical (and easier) to plant smaller trees, and it’s really surprising how fast smaller trees will establish themselves if properly maintained. Smaller trees don’t suffer as much transplant shock as larger ones, so 10 to 15 years down the road they will probably end up being the same size as if you had planted a larger size tree. Some studies have proven this point.

Avoid Problem Trees

Fast growing trees like Poplars and Silver Maples offer only one benefit — they grow fast. But invariably, 40 years from now, someone will be faced with a major pruning or removal bill. Many Poplars are short-lived, and Silver Maples are infamous for forming weak “V” branch crotches, overpowering nearby buildings, clogging terra cotta pipes with their roots, and creating problem lawn roots. Another tree that starts out great and ends up lousy is the Bradford Pear since their weak structure is usually ripped apart by wind or ice within 20 years or so.

The Right Tree

Look for improved varieties of trees when you shop — nursery propagation programs are constantly producing ‘new and improved’ plants. An example would be newly developed varieties of flowering crabapples that have been selected for their better disease resistance — a great improvement over many older varieties that were prone to leaf disease problems. By planting varieties with improved disease resistance, you will end up with seasons of satisfaction instead of a lifetime of aggravation.

The Right Place

Your first consideration should be how much room a tree has to grow. Are their limitations to how tall the tree can get, like utility lines overhead? If the tree is planted next to your residence, how wide can it get before encroaching on your house? Keeping these considerations in mind when selecting your tree will avoid problems in later years as the tree matures. Als,o check to be sure you don’t plant trees in rights-of-ways where you don’t have complete ownership. Streets are usually wider on paper than they visually appear — what if the street is widened or a sidewalk is added in the future?

Begin Tree Maintenance Early

Early pruning and maintenance of newly planted trees will improve tree structure and vigor. Prune out damaged or crossing branches, a second leader, and inward growing branches. Keep young trees well watered, and watch for insect problems in their early stages when they are much easier to remedy. Annual fertilization will greatly improve the growth rate and overall health of a young tree.

Be a Good Scout

Keep a close eye on your trees, scouting for anything that doesn’t look just right. Most problems are easiest to solve when they are addressed early. Things like discolored or twisted leaves, dead branches, and bee activity can indicate tree problems that need to be treated. Never underestimate the value of being a good scout.

Tree Planting

Balled Trees

B&B trees at a nursery in the spring

Larger landscape-sized trees are usually balled and burlapped, or “B&B” as they are referred to in the landscaping business. Due to the weight of soil root balls (soil averages 100 lbs a cubic foot) moving and planting a large balled tree can be a daunting task usually best to professionals with experience and equipment.

Tree Moving How-to

  • Burlapped trees should be moved by lifting the root ball instead of pulling on the trunk – it’s easy to damage the small roots on a balled plant.
  • If you are transporting a tree with leaves on it, wrap the branches with burlap or a mesh tarp to protect it from the drying effects of the wind. Try to drive slowly to minimize windburn.

Be careful…

  • It’s easy to hurt your back when moving a heavy tree.
  • Avoid the use of make-shift planks for ramps that can slip out. The weight of a heavy root ball can crush a person, causing very serious injuries!
  • Branches often poke you, so protect your eyes.

Pinning nails are used by nurserymen to hold burlap on the root ball — the points are extremely sharp and will snag you if you aren’t careful.

Pinning nails for securing burlap have very sharp points

Pinning nails for securing burlap have very sharp points

Placing a Tree

Tree placement should take into consideration a tree’s growing requirements, maximum size, easements, right-of-ways, and property lines.

  • Right-of-ways may extend 15 feet or more into your lawn area from the street. Consider that someday sidewalks might be added to that area.
  • Laws may allow neighbors to trim off branches reaching over their property line. Check your local laws and ordinances, and even if you are allowed to trim off a neighbor’s tree branches, try to discuss the issue with them first in order to maintain a good neighborly relationship.
  • If you plant a tree over a utility line that may need to be dug up later, it could mean the tree will have to be cut down.
  • How is drainage? Most plants don’t like soggy soil.
  • Use trees to block ugly views, but don’t block the desirable views.
  • Deciduous trees only screen during the growing season, while evergreens will provide screening all year.
  • If you plant deciduous trees on the south or west side of your house, it will help cool your house in summer while allowing winter sunlight through to warm your house.
  • Hedges of trees will act as windbreaks against cold winter northwesterly winds.

Buried utility lines, wires, and underground hazards? Check before you dig. Call “One Call” – a free service for marking underground utilities – and do it a couple of weeks ahead to allow time for the various utilities to mark the area. Landscape lighting, lamp post wires, and electric dog fence wires are often shallow and very easy to damage, but you’ll have to locate these on your own.

Digging the tree hole

Some of the research on tree planting suggests using methods you wouldn’t imagine. Did you know it is better to backfill your planting hole with the native soil, instead of bringing in topsoil? Research has indicated that tree roots will establish better if the soil they are growing into is the same. In some cases, however, you are forced to dispose of heavy clay or rocks and use better soil for your backfill.

Having good drainage is probably the most important factor of all — tree roots need to breathe and won’t tolerate soggy soil conditions that can suffocate roots. Some species of trees will tolerate wet conditions better than others.

Hole Depth:

Don’t excavate any deeper than the root ball. B&B trees need a solid footing to sit on. Loose soil under the ball will allow the soil to settle later, causing the tree to become tilted as it sinks.

Hole Width:

Planting holes should be twice as wide as the root ball if feasible. When planting in poorly drained heavy clay, excavate a narrow ditch out of the lowest hole edge. Fill that ditch with loose soil that will allow water drainage. If the surrounding ground isn’t sloped, plant the tree with the root ball elevated one-third of its height above the existing soil, and slope-up the backfill around the elevated root ball.

Soil backfill and transplant pruning

As mentioned above, recent university research overturned some old concepts about transplanting trees. Two of the most notable concepts deal with pruning and soil backfill:

Backfill with topsoil?

University research indicates that trees will establish better if planting holes are backfilled with the native soil. Improving the backfill (using peat moss, topsoil, etc) may cause roots to stay in the planting hole, due to differences in the types of soil.

Branch pruning?

Early recommendations called for thinning a tree after transplanting to compensate for the loss of roots during transplanting. More recent studies indicate you should only remove crossing branches or damaged limbs. That being said, many nurserymen still believe in thinning a newly transplanted tree to balance the ‘root to shoot’ ratio.

Stake the tree?

Rules for tree staking: Trees over 6-feet tall should be staked for the first growing season. In windy situations, you may need to stake shorter trees as well, with the principle being that a tree ends up straight once it roots into the ground. Recommendations also call for staking a tree so it can move slightly, the theory being it will develop a stronger root system with some movement in the wind. Protect the tree’s bark from wires and ties with short sections of old garden hose, which work well.

Staking a tree


Another method uses 3 short stakes spaced evenly around the tree with wires running up to the first heavy branches

Tree wrap

Bark on a young tree should be protected with tree wrap, or a plastic spiral wrap, during its first year of growth. Place these wraps around the trunk of the tree, between the first set of branches and the ground.


Don’t choke your new tree!  When placing any sort of bindings around a tree trunk, it’s very important to check them from time to time to ensure they aren’t choking the tree trunk as its trunk diameter expands!  We’ve seen many cases where these wires, plastic ropes, and synthetic wraps have caused the death of a tree. These situations most often occur in commercial landscapes where no one is paying any attention to tree maintenance after the initial planting work.

Tree Care

Tree care doesn’t have to be a highly technical or complicated subject since most trees fend for themselves pretty well. By following some “tree basics” it’s easy to promote healthy growth in trees. Since most individuals will be dealing with existing trees in the landscape, this page will address tree care from the long term care perspective, instead of the care of newly planted trees.

Do no harm

One of the most basic principles of tree care is “do no harm.” Vigorous trees appear to be invincible, and individuals are often negligent without even realizing it. A good example would be the repeated use of a string line weed-whacker around the base of the tree to keep the grass trimmed away from the trunk. At first glance, it would appear that the plastic line couldn’t possibly harm a “tough” tree trunk. But when you consider the velocity of the line and the living tissue just below the tree’s outer bark, you realize that repeated use of a string line trimmer can open trunk wounds and subject the tree to destructive, invasive pathogens. Therefore, be careful using weedeaters around tree trunks, or better yet, create a protective mulched area around the base of the tree so weed eating next to the trunk isn’t necessary.

Don’t add soil fill over an existing root zone unless it is absolutely necessary. Even though placing a couple of inches of soil over a bumpy root system in the lawn won’t usually harm a tree, it’s better yet to create a mulched area or groundcover planting in the tree’s root zone.

Don’t leave branch stubs when trimming off branches. Branch stubs provide an excellent entry root for destructive insects and disease pathogens. At the same time, cutting a branch too close to the tree trunk can remove the “branch collar,” which provides a degree of natural protection to the open wound. Trees actually have protection ability built right into the branch collar. Therefore, the second “don’t” in this paragraph is: Don’t paint branch cuts — the tree already has natural protection from the branch collar and painting is unnecessary, even undesirable.

Don’t “top” trees with “hat rack” style trimming techniques. If a large tree is planted in the wrong spot and needs this drastic of trimming, it’s better to remove the tree and plant a tree which won’t grow so tall. Topping creates large branch wounds, weak growth of fast-growing sprouts, and basically ruins the natural structure of the tree forever.

Don’t trench close to a tree trunk for utility lines. Since most tree roots are in the top 24-inches of the soil, digging a utility line trench within the branch tips can effectively remove a large percentage of the tree roots, causing problems with nutrient uptake and stability.

Don’t plant fast-growing trees (Silver Maple, Poplar, Willow, Bradford Pear, etc) that will rapidly become problems in the future.

Encourage Healthy Tree Growth

  • Thoroughly water a tree’s entire root zone during periods of drought with the equivalent of one inch of water, once every week or two, depending on soil type. Apply slowly to prevent runoff.
  • Fertilize once a year in springtime with a 2-1-1 ratio fertilizer, following label instructions.
  • Watch for any developing insect or disease problems and address problems early. Follow IPM (Integrated Pest Management) guidelines with all treatments.
  • Follow proper pruning guidelines and techniques.
  • Use caution around trees with de-icers and herbicides. Some lawn herbicides can leach into the root zone and be picked-up by tree roots, causing tree damage.
  • Plant improved varieties of trees. Selected varieties have more resistance to common disease problems.
  • Remove undesirable, problem trees. Plant desirable trees in their place.

Tree Fertilization

Deep Root Feeding vs. Surface Applications


Trees have been traditionally fertilized by creating holes in the root zone and pouring in dry fertilizer. Some arborists use probes to inject liquid fertilizer into the root zone area. Some pros also use Mauget injection, where holes are drilled in the trunk, and fertilizers are introduced using capsules. Another method is hammering hardened, pointed rods (called “spikes”) of fertilizer into the root zone.

Recent tests have shown that surface applications of fertilizer, at the right time of year, can be as effective as deep feeding methods. These surface apps should be timed for late fall or early spring when treetops are still dormant yet roots are active. Roots remain active until the soil drops below 40-degrees F and this period includes several weeks after leaf drop in fall, and a few weeks before spring bud break. Therefore, these applications would be considered dormant feedings. Most trees like a 2-1-1 fertilizer analysis, such as a 20-10-10.

In the Zone (..the Root Zone that is)

Placement of fertilizers need to be where the tree can get them, so don’t place them too deep — most tree roots are within 12″ to 18″ of the lawn surface. Tree size and fertilizer analysis will dictate the exact amount of fertilizer you should end up applying. To prevent groundwater contamination, don’t apply fertilizer when tree roots aren’t actively growing since this will allow the nutrients to leach from the root zone area.

Chemical fertilizers shouldn’t be put in the planting hole when a tree is first planted since this can cause root burn. We would recommend using an organic fertilizer — a slow-release fertilizer with little burn potential — in with the soil backfill. Just remember that a “little bit” is always better than too much.

Since it’s difficult for phosphorus to move through the soil, this is your best chance to introduce phosphorus. An organic source of phosphorus used when planting spring bulbs is a bone meal. Triple superphosphate (0-46-0)  is a chemical source. Phosphorus promotes rooting, as well as blossoms, in trees that flower.

Where are the Feeder Roots?

Below is a bird’s eye view of a tree’s root zone illustrating where most of the “feeder roots” are located. The green line represents the tree’s branch tips, also known as the “drip line.” Most feeder roots on a tree are located just inside, and just outside of the drip line, as indicated by the zone surrounded by dashed red lines below. Therefore, focus your tree fertilization efforts in the area between the two dashed red lines, where most of the feeder roots are located. (Tree research also indicates most tree roots are located on the north side of a tree)

Key to DiagramBLACK = tree trunk and roots


GREEN = tree canopy drip line

RED = Area between the dashed red lines represents the highest concentration of feeder roots. Fertilize in this zone.

Fertilizer analysis

Fertilizer bags have three numbers on the label, indicating the fertilizer analysis, or “percentage by weight” of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, in that sequence.

A 50-pound bag of fertilizer labeled 10-5-5 would contain 10% nitrogen (5 pounds), 5% available phosphates (2.5 pounds), and 5% soluble potash (2.5 pounds). Here’s the math:

50 pounds of 10-5-5 fertilizer:

10% nitrogen (.10 x 50 lbs = 5 lbs)
5% available phosphates (.05 x 50 lbs = 2.5 lbs)
5% water soluble potash (.05 x 50 lbs = 2.5 lbs)

This fertilizer product would be considered a “complete” fertilizer since all three nutrients are present in the bag.

Fertilizers are also rated with “ratios” that indicate the proportion of nutrients to one another. For example, a 10-5-5 fertilizer is a 2-1-1 ratio, while a 20-10-5 fertilizer is a 4-2-1 ratio fertilizer.

A fertilizer ratio of 2-1-1 is what most trees prefer, which translates into a fertilizer analysis like 20-10-10 or 10-5-5.

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