How to Plant a Tree

Prudent planters no longer refer to the spot where the tree is to be planted as the “hole,” but rather the “planting area.” Current research indicates that the ideal habitat for a newly planted tree is a planting area that is two to five times the diameter of the root ball and has been loosened and mixed by shovel or rototiller. A planting area constructed thusly bears a striking resemblance to the natural forest ecosystem. In other words, try to mimic what the tree loves best.

The following steps attempt to recreate the ideal habitat:

  • Mark out a planting area two to five times the diameter of the root ball.
  • With a shovel or rototiller, cultivate a hole at least twice the diameter of the root ball.
  • Add a small amount of well-mixed compost to the planting area.
  • Position the root ball in the hole with the top level to the surface of surrounding soil.
  • Cut all wires and rope securing the burlap around the root ball and pull the burlap or wire at least half way down the root ball, preferably all the way.
  • For containerized trees, if encircling roots are present, gently separate and spread them into the planting hole. If they are too large to spread, cut them.
  • Backfill with the soil using water to settle the soil. Do not put any soil on top of the root ball.
  • Apply no more than 4 ounces of a slow-release fertilizer (preferably organic) to the planting area.
  • Apply 2 to 3 inches of wood chip mulch over the entire planting area. If possible, place 1 inch of compost between the mulch and soil. Do not put mulch within 2 inches of the tree trunk.
  • Stake only if necessary. Support ties should be placed between 1/3 and 1/2 of the total tree height.
  • Prune only dead, diseased, broken or rubbing branches.
Picture of Mark Peterson
Mark Peterson
Mark A. Peterson was a conservation project coordinator for San Antonio Water System before retiring. With over 30 years of experience as an urban forester and arborist, Mark is probably the only person you know who actually prunes trees for fun. When not expounding on the benefits of trees and limited lawns, you're likely to find him hiking San Antonio's wilderness parks or expounding on the virtues of geography and history to his friends.
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