Ask A Master Gardener – Proper Tree Planting

Authored by: Carol Shirk

Spring is an ideal time to plant new trees in the landscape. There are some key practices that ensure long term success for your new addition.

Before planting, evaluate the site, making sure you have planned for the tree’s mature size. An inappropriate tree for the site will lead to continuous challenges, constant maintenance, and potential hazards. Take into consideration distance from dwellings, driveways, streets, vegetable/flower gardens, and utilities.

Select the proper tree for your site based on the water, light, and growing requirements. Keep in mind that not all trees prefer full sunlight; some are understory trees that need shade.

Once the tree and site selection are done, it is always a good idea to do a soil test. Instruction can be found at the University of Wisconsin Soil and Forage Lab.

Trees will benefit from soil with 10–20 percent organic matter by volume. If your soil needs organic amendment, do so throughout the entire growing area and not just in the planting hole, making the entire area uniform. When only the planting hole is amended, the soil structure is different from the surrounding native soil, encouraging the roots to remain in the hole and not move out into the native soil. The roots will simply curl in the hole, leading to the demise of the tree.

Once the site and the tree are selected and the soil is prepared, planting can commence. Dig the hole three times the diameter, but no deeper than the root ball. Planting too deeply is one of the most serious planting errors and will most certainly lead to eventual death of the tree. The soil at the bottom of the hole should be left undisturbed so that the tree will not settle deeper. If planting a bare root tree, prune away any roots that are broken or damaged, spreading the rest out into the hole. Identify the root flare, the place where the bark meets the roots and the trunk flares out. Make sure this is above the soil line. When you are done, if your tree looks like a telephone pole with no flare above ground, it is planted too deeply. Back fill the hole with native soil.

When planting a container grown tree, the roots may have circled in the pot. Cut any circling roots that may strangle the tree later. If the tree is pot-bound, take a knife and make 1–2-inch-deep cuts going from the top to the bottom of the root ball 3–4 places around the perimeter. Gently pull away the cut roots to encourage new root growth from behind the cuts.

If planting a balled and burlap tree, remove any synthetic covering, wire cages, tags, wires, etc. before planting. Natural burlap is biodegradable and can be left on the bottom and sides of the root ball, but should be removed from the top. Handle the tree only from the root and never from the trunk.

Water thoroughly to settle the soil and tamp lightly to remove any air pockets. Give a newly planted tree an inch of water per week for the first year, but do not overwater. Fertilizer is unnecessary unless the soil test indicated a need.

Mulch to a depth of 2–3 inches around the tree out to the drip line. However, do not mound the mulch volcano style nor mound it around the trunk of the tree.

These simple practices will ensure the enjoyment of your new tree for decades to come.

Carol Shirk

Master Gardener Volunteer



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