Planting Healthy Trees for Long Lives

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Planting Healthy Trees for Long Lives
Planting Healthy Trees for Long Lives

Planting Healthy Trees for Long Lives

Planting Healthy Trees for Long Lives

Planting Trees: How-To

Trees are a beautiful and desirable part of almost any landscape. They provide comfortable shade, protect against soil erosion, and can even contribute to the energy efficiency of a home. Additionally, trees are beautiful and can make any landscape attractive. Any home with a nice, attractive, well-maintained tree on its property enjoys increased property value. But in order to enjoy a tree, it must first be properly planted.

Buying Tree Plantings

There are three main ways that plantings can be bought; subsequently, there are different ways to plant them. You may plant a bare root tree, a container tree, or a ball and burlap tree. Each of these types of seedling set-ups requires a different technique in planting. However, it is very possible to do this planting yourself, saving money and keeping within a reasonable budget.

Planting a bare root tree. This is a tree moved from one location to another (dug up and transplanted).

The first thing you should do is make sure you have the proper tools: a garden fork, a shovel, two wooden stakes, tree ties, and mulch. Use a shovel to mark out the area of the planned hole. This hole should be at least twice the diameter of the tree’s root system.

Once you have the area marked out, with a shallow hole already dug within the markings, use the garden fork to scarify the edges of the hole. This action loosens the soil and will make it easier for the roots to properly expand.

In the center of your hole, build a small mound. Then place the two stakes into the ground on opposite sides of the mound. The stakes act as stabilizers and supports to the tree as it works to establish itself.

You should try to make sure that you plant the tree at the same depth at which it was planted before. Spread the roots over the mound.

Next, add enough soil to support the tree (but not fill up the hole) and then spray the area with water. Backfill the hole with a little more soil, add water again. Then repeat two or three more times, completely filling in the hole.

Tamp the soil down to get rid of air pockets surrounding the tree’s roots. If your climate is dry, or if water drains away quickly, a moat should be dug around the tree to retain water. Fasten the tree ties to the stakes and the tree, not too tightly, to ensure that the tree receives adequate support for its first year in the new area.

Two to four inches of mulch should be applied around the planting area, but be sure that the mulch does not touch the tree trunk. The tree should be watered well and the soil kept moist for the next year.


Planting a container tree. This type of tree is often found at nurseries, coming in a pot or other plastic container.

Like with a bare root tree, it is necessary to have a shovel, garden fork, stakes, tree ties, and mulch. Then, using the container as a guide, mark out the planting using the shovel.

The hole will need to be right around three times the width of the container. The hole should be about one and a half times as deep as the height of the pot. After the hole has been properly dug, use the garden fork to scarify the hole’s sides.

Pound the two stakes (preferably cedar) into the ground angled outward. There should be enough room between the stakes for the root ball to fit.

Water the tree in its container, and then gently lay it on its side. Remove the pot and gently tease the roots out with your hands. A small cultivator would also work.

Backfill some of the soil into the hole. Place the tree in the center of the hole. Make sure that the edge of the hole is level with the height of the container. It may be necessary to add soil until this level is achieved.

After the tree is at the correct height, fill in the hole with soil, tamping it down as you go. Dig a moat if needed.

Use your tree ties and apply mulch in much the same manner as the bare root tree. The tree will need to be kept moist for a year while it establishes itself.

Planting a ball and burlap tree (root ball surrounded by burlap sack).

This planting technique requires only a shovel, garden fork, mulch and scissors (or a knife).

Dig a hole, much like with the container tree, of three times the root ball’s width. The hole should only be as deep as ball, however. Scarify the hole’s sides.

Place the tree in the hole and use the scissors to remove twine or wire from the ball.

Remove the burlap altogether if it is synthetic. If it is natural, loosen the top layer and roll it down to the base of the ball.

Fill in the hole and mulch, caring for it as other newly planted trees.

Trees and home landscaping

There’s a dirty little secret in our landscapes: Seemingly healthy trees and shrubs are experiencing preventable neglect and early death. Within 10 years of installation, specimens that once seemed to thrive suddenly develop diseases of the crown and other disorders, eventually failing. The average life span of trees in urban areas can be in the single digits, rather than in the decades or centuries typical to tree species.

Through research and practice, I have uncovered one problem that can go unnoticed at the time of planting: poor root structure (or inadequate root preparation). Roots grow normally until forced into an unnatural shape. Containers are often narrow and deep, not the best shape for the broad, relatively shallow root system of a tree. Nevertheless, roots will follow the shape forced upon them and unless freed from this arrangement will continue to grow as misshapen masses until they can no longer supply water or otherwise support the tree. This problem must be corrected during transplanting; it is not enough to just remove the pot.

The city of Spokane, Washington, experienced heavy loss of new trees until 12 years ago when it adopted the techniques described here. Since then, 97 percent of the trees planted have survived the hot, dry summers.

Be forewarned: Many nurseries will not guarantee their plant materials if the customer disturbs the rootball. However, the benefits associated with preparing and correcting roots far outweigh the risks.

Correct problem roots before they become fatal

Potbound plants exhibit circling root systems that if not corrected become girdling roots, which can lead to the early death of otherwise healthy trees and shrubs. At transplant time, an aggressive approach to root preparation can uncover potentially fatal root flaws. Circling, J-hooked, knotted, and other misshapen roots can often be corrected by careful pruning.

Encourage the growth of new roots

Counterintuitive as it may seem, pruning induces new root growth. Once the plant is installed, new, flexible roots will begin growing immediately from tissue behind the cuts. These new roots, with their associated root hairs, are the absorbent roots and will begin to reestablish adequate water flow to the rest of the plant.

Remove materials that have no business in your landscape

Wire baskets, burlap, and twine all can interfere with normal root growth and slow or prevent establishment. There is no good reason to leave this material in a planting hole.

Promote the movement of air, water, and roots

The loose, soilless planting medium used to grow trees in containers provides too high a contrast with the denser soil surrounding the planting hole, deterring water (and therefore roots) from spreading beyond the hole. Remove as much of this planting mix as possible before the plant is installed. Similarly, when balled-and-burlapped trees are planted into the landscape, the differences between soil textures will inhibit root establishment. Removal of the soil in the rootball prevents this and also reduces the weight of the tree, making it easier to handle and install.

Trees Are Cool

According to the USDA, the cooling effect of a healthy tree is equal to 10 room-size air-conditioners operating 20 hours a day. Planting trees in our cities will absorb 33 million tons of CO2 every year and save $4 billion in energy costs, says the National Wildlife Federation.

8 Steps to Healthier Trees

1. Using a hose or a water bath, remove all soil from the roots. Work out clumps of soil from between the roots using your fingers. Let rootballs soak for several hours if they are too dry to work.

2. Prune excessively long and defective roots. From this point on, roots must be kept submerged or wrapped in a wet cloth.

3. Dig a shallow hole only as deep as the root system and at least twice as wide. In the center, form a soil mound to support the root crown.

4. Arrange the roots radially over the mound and backfill with the same soil that came out of the hole. Do not use any type of soil amendment.

5. Water well, using the water from Step 1, which will contain nutrients and microbes. Add more soil as holes develop, and gently firm the soil.

6. Mulch all disturbed the soil with 4 inches of coarse organic mulch, keeping it a few inches away from the trunk. (Think “doughnut,” not “volcano.”)

7. Water your tree well during the first year of establishment. You have removed a good portion of the root system and its ability to take up water, and nutrients will be temporarily impaired.

8. Keep it simple and natural: Do not prune the top of the tree or add expensive but pointless transplant supplements.

Perfect Tree Growing Practices

Spring and early summer is the perfect time to add new trees to your landscape. Many people plant trees quite incorrectly by placing them too deep into the ground. This is one of the leading causes of premature tree loss resulting from girdling roots around the buried portion of the stem.

Most trees planted by homeowners come as potted or container-grown trees because they are easy to maintain on the sale lot and easy to handle for planting. Unfortunately, potted trees also have root systems that contact the pot and grow in circles as they follow the inner surface of the pot.

If even the slightest bit of the tree’s trunk is placed below soil grade, these circling roots will eventually contact and a girdle of the trunk as both grow in circumference. Trees typically fail when they reach the diameter of the original pot size.

Expert planting recommendations emphasize the importance of finding the first main root on the stem prior to planting. At completion, this main root or root flare should be at or slightly above the finished soil grade or turf.

If the soil in your garden is heavy clay soils the main root should be above the soil grade with a wide planting space where soil is brought from normal grade up to the base of the tree. This will create a slightly raised area, allowing for better drainage.

Circling roots can be removed by shaving the root ball with an old saw. Simply saw off the outer 1/2 to 1 inch of the soil and circling roots. The fresh cuts will promote the development of new lateral roots.

The tree planting site should be prepared by loosening the soil in area three to five times the width of the root ball to create a space favorable for root growth. Wider planting spaces with mulch cover will promote much more rapid establishment and growth.

Dig no deeper than the required depth to allow the first root to end up at the appropriate grade. If soil is loosened below the root ball, the tree will settle and end up below grade.

Finish off the site with about a 3-inch layer of mulch to conserve moisture and moderate temperature in the root zone. Make sure that mulch is not piled against the trunk. Just use a very thin layer over the root ball and at the base of the tree.

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