Tree Planting 101: Part 3 – Planting

As soon as the hole is dug, we’re almost ready to plant the tree, but first we’ll double check (with the help of an arborist, of course), that the tree is at the right height when placed in the hole, and that the hole has enough space around the sides for the roots to grow.  If there are any weeds, we’ll make sure to remove those by hand or with a fork.  And as we plant, depending on the soil type, we’ll make sure to water before we fill the hole completely – this helps break down any big dirt clods and also helps settle the soil without compacting it too much.

Here is our arborist approved checklist to review before planting a tree:

  1. Is the weather appropriate for planting?  Ideal planting conditions is in cool, cloudy and humid – not windy.  If the tree can’t be planted right away due to weather or other conditions, it should be kept in a cool, shady area.
  2. Are there any weeds that need to be removed?  Before planting, we remove any weeds from the site – either by hand or with a fork.  If deep-rooted perennial weeds cover the site – we might consider treating it with an organic herbicide.
  3. Is the tree a bare-root tree, or is it a container-grown tree?  For bare-root plants, look for the flare of the trunk – the area where the upper roots grow from the base of the trunk – that’s where we want the ground to be — just above this level.  For container-grown trees, we can scrape off the surface potting mix to find the flare – as a general rule, we should plant container-grown trees at the same level as they were in their containers.
  4. Is the depth of the hole about the same as the rootball?  Any deeper can cause harm to the tree and inhibit healthy root growth.  Planting depth is important – the tree should not be planted any deeper than the level of the surrounding native soil.
  5. Is the rootball prepped? The roots will start growing in a circular motion within the burlap or pot.  To break this pattern, the root ball should be prepped by cutting vertical strips from the top of the rootball to the bottom in at least 4 spots around the rootball.  Cutting the roots will force the tree to put out more fibers and grow outward, away from the tree to establish itself in its new home.
  6. Are the roots moist?  We want to keep the roots moist before planting.  If we’re planting a bare-root tree, we can rest the roots in a bucket of water while digging the hole, or, if we’re planting a container-grown tree we can water the roots half-way through the backfilling process.
  7. Is the soil prepped for backfilling?  When adding the backfill, we don’t want to compact it with our feet but can take the shovel and break up some of the clods as adding backfill.  Adding water part-way through backfilling will help break down the clods and settle the dirt down.
  8. Is the root collar clear of topsoil?  After the hole is filled – we can use the shovel to clear off the top soil that is covering up the root collar ball to prepare for mulching.  Adding water at this point will help settle the backfill.
  9. If planting a rooball in burlap, is the tree clear of any rope, twine or strings from the tree?  Often times a tree transplanted from a nursery will be tied up with some rope or twine at the base of the tree.  This needs to be removed before planting to avoid damage to the tree and roots.

Planting tips:

  • Shovel backfill into the hole without compacting soil with feet or tools – backfill using as much of the native soil as possible
  • If planting in a clay soil, the rootball should be planted a little higher so that it doesn’t drown when it gets wet (top of the root ball
  • Do not use compost or fertilizer within the planting hole – that will keep the roots right inside the ball and will not allow them to go into the native soil
  • Once half-filled, water the soil surrounding the root ball.  That will force the air pockets out of the soil – allowing the roots to have better contact with the soil.  Continue adding backfill up to the soil line after watered.
  • Create a dike / water well / mote around the tree trunk to allow water to fill and keep the tree ball moist
  • Be careful to transport the tree by the base & rootball.  We don’t want to pull on the trunk or branches when transporting a tree for planting.
  • If the tree is wrapped in burlap – the burlap will decompose over time.  If the tree is wrapped in synthetic burlap, then it should be removed completely.
  • If a wire basket is encasing the rootball, we remove the wirebasket after the tree is placed into the hole to make sure that it does not interfere with the roots whatsoever.
  • If the tree has an exposed root system, before planting you can soak the roots in a bucket of water for up to an hour.  This ensures that the roots are nice and moist before planting into the soil.
  • If there are any long roots jutting out longer in a certain direction, they can be cut off slightly to make the root structure more uniform so that it’s easier to get the whole root structure into the planting hole.
  • All roots should come out to a straight point – we don’t want any roots reaching the planting hole side and curving back toward the tree
  • In clay soil, we fill the hole about half way, then water the soil to flood the soil, then jiggle the tree to clear out any air bubbles.  Repeat again once hole is filled full.
  • Leave 2-4 inches before the graft union when planting fruit trees – this ensures that only the root stalks provide roots and not the tree variety
  • If tree is leaning slightly during or after planting, we can use hands to move tree slightly from the base to wiggle around until it stands up straight.
  • After planting remove any tags on the tree – depending on the material type it could cause some problems by girdling – becoming too tight on the stems.
  • When backfilling, pull the tree up and let rest back in several times to allow the soil to settle around the roots.
  • Add a protective tube around the trunk if animals are a problem in the area
  • Tease out the roots in the rootball for container-grown plants.  This encourages the roots to grow outward rather than in a circle.  Failure to tease out the roots of container grown plants will lead to spiraling roots – and the tree will not establish.
  • The flare of the trunk should be just below the level of the ground.