How to Plant a Tree

Learn how planting trees and caring for trees save you money.

Tree With Tire Swing

Planting trees gives a homestead personality.

Photo by Rick Wetherbee

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Trees play a vital role in providing habitat, beauty and utility in our surroundings. Deciduous trees disrupt the wind and shade our homes from the hot summer sun, and during winter months, bare trees allow sunshine through and still offer some protection from the wind. Many coniferous evergreens grow large enough to serve as windbreaks and offer all manner of cover for wildlife. Flowering trees including dogwood, cherry, lilac and tulip soften the landscape by providing beautiful living art, while fruit and nut trees produce nutritious foods.

A tree is a lifetime investment that may not pay the biggest dividends for generations. However, like many long-term investments, with thoughtful choosing, careful planning, care and nurturing, trees will provide substantial value to your landscape from the very beginning. It’s a long-term proposition that can pay off big-time if you follow these tips.

Location is everything

For the best return on your tree investment, choose the species or cultivar and its intended location carefully. Begin by determining the tree’s growth habit, mature age and size in your region, tendency to send large limbs crashing to the ground as it matures, and the likelihood that its roots will seek out and clog sewer lines or leach fields. If you don’t enjoy cleaning gutters, keep things like seed production and leaf drop in mind as well.

Does your tree like full sun, partial sun or a shady spot? Does it have a taproot? How does it do in clay soils, wet soils, dry soils, sand, etc. — you get the picture. Once you know what you wish to plant, it’s time to locate it.

Depending on the size of the tree and whether it is dormant bare-root stock, balled and burlapped, container grown, or freshly dug with a tree spade, you will need to create a relatively large hole to receive the tree. Ideally you will locate it away from overhead powerlines and cables, and a safe distance from buried pipelines, powerlines, fiber-optic cables and other subterranean obstacles. (Call 811 to be sure.) If there are buildings in the vicinity, plan to locate your tree a minimum of 18 inches plus half the mature canopy width away from the structure. If your species is prone to blowing over in certain circumstances, you may want the tree to be at least as far from the structure as its eventual mature height. Plan now and prevent heartache or worse later.

Avoid the shock

Whether transplanted as dormant stock or while actively growing, trees are subject to incredible stress when they are plunked into a new location. Bare root stock must be transplanted while dormant in the early spring or late fall/early winter — the advantage being that the roots will have some time to adapt before the tree puts a lot of uptake demands on them. Dormant balled and burlapped or container-grown stock will experience less trouble adapting to the new location, assuming you prepare the site well — but all dormant transplants still need watering and careful attending during their first few growing seasons. Transplanting actively growing stock requires diligence and care to keep them healthy, since they will need to adapt to their new location and continue to maintain the leaf structures already in place. In any case, newly transplanted trees will be vulnerable to wind, water shortages, insects and you name it for a couple of years.   

Dig deep

To minimize stress on transplants, follow a few simple tips. 

When transplanting trees, be sure to dig a hole wide enough for the root system to establish itself in its new location — about twice the diameter of the container or root ball. If transplanting container-grown or balled stock, be sure to gently pull and loosen the roots so they don’t retain the memory of the container they were previously in. Feel free to trim back any long pieces of root along with a good pruning of the aerial portion of the tree. The trick is to give that root a head start and not tax it with too much above-ground structure to support in that first season. But watch the depth.

Situate the tree in the hole so the crown (where the roots and trunk meet) is no more than a couple of inches below ground level. With container-grown stock, situate the tree so the soil surface in the container is roughly even with or up to an inch above grade. Planting too deep can be just as damaging as not planting deep enough. Once situated in the hole, backfill slowly with well-crumbled soil and pack it gently so there are no air pockets around the roots. Water it in, brace it with guy lines if recommended and be prepared to keep a close eye on it for the next couple of years.

Take care

If the tree is planted in fine-textured soil with high levels of clay or silt, the tree should receive about 1 inch of water each week, or about a 5-gallon bucket’s worth (depending on the size) during the growing season. In easily drained soils, 2 inches of water per week is more appropriate. When planting, making a well around the base of the tree helps contain water so it seeps into the roots rather than running off.

Adequate rainfall reduces the need for frequent watering, and automatic lawn irrigation systems may actually deliver too much moisture for newly planted trees causing root damage or even death. A rule of thumb is to water until the soil has a cakelike texture, and the water seeps slowly into the ground. If in doubt, be sure to ask plenty of questions from experts in your area. In general, it is better to water deeply and less frequently than the other way around.

While a newly transplanted tree grows in its first year, it draws from stored energy within its trunk, branches and roots. Root growth especially depends on the carbohydrates drawn from the leaves of the tree. During this formative period of growth, perhaps one of the most important post-planting practices to improve the health and vitality of a young tree is mulching.

Mulching with wood chips can nearly double a tree’s growth in the first few years after planting — primarily by protecting the root zone from wide in-season temperature swings and moisture variation. It also provides a well-groomed appearance, helps keep weeds and grass from competing with the tree, and prevents mower damage, a leading cause of injury and death to growing trees. It also prevents soil erosion, and as mulch decomposes, it adds to the soil’s organic matter. Mulching materials vary widely, and different types will do some jobs better than others. Ask your local garden center which type would best suit your environment and tree species being planted.

The mulched area should be at least 2 feet or more around the base of the tree, but not directly up against the trunk of the tree; pull it away from the trunk several inches to create a donut hole. A 3- to 4-inch layer of organic wood chips or shavings, bark or similar materials is sufficient. A mulch layer thicker than 4 inches may create excessively moist conditions and harbor small rodents, insects, diseases and such harmful to young trees, especially during winter months. Mulch diameter ideally extends to the drip line of the branches, but after a few years this is not practical.

In poor, highly compacted soils, heavy mulch may cause shallow root growth, which makes the transplant particularly vulnerable to drought.

Trees represent a considerable investment in time, but they also play a large role in our environment and bring joy with their beauty. The shade offered by most trees will lower cooling bills, they make great windbreaks helping to lower your heating bills, and fruit and nut trees are a great food source for a homestead. Take time to select the right tree for your landscape, and care for it wisely because your investment will reap many dividends.  


Maintaining older trees

As trees get older, some varieties more than others are apt to become frail, and their branches break off in storms or high winds. Box elders, for example, are known to shed branches readily at a light gust, and this can become dangerous should someone be standing underneath at the wrong time. It’s good practice to watch your trees living in the high traffic areas of your homestead. Trimming back branches that are looking less than healthy will help prevent accidents like these from happening. ­


Tree support

When planting in a windy area, staking and guyline systems may be necessary to stabilize your tree. But don’t allow the tree to rely on this support for more than a couple of years (depending on the size of the transplant). If left in place too long, the tree will not experience the stresses that encourage a stronger root system more quickly or the growth and development of a sturdier trunk.

Staking and guying should provide enough support to keep the tree from uprooting or the trunk from breaking, yet enough flexibility to allow some natural trunk movement. Guying materials should have broad surfaces where it meets the tree and take care to prevent any possibility for rubbing. Plastic horticultural tape, canvas webbing, or even cotton strips at least 1-1/2 inches wide are good guying materials that will not damage tender tree trunks. 

There are several ways to stake a tree, but three guys with three equally spaced stakes should do the trick in most situations. Attach one end of your supporting material to the stake and attach the other end to the trunk right beneath the lowest branch. You’ll want there to be some tension, but not so much as to pull on the tree.


Compacted soils

Compacted soils will impede the growth of new trees. Roots will likely be starved for oxygen, have difficulty penetrating and, in general, be inadequate to support the tree physically and physiologically. You can still plant a tree in compacted soils, but you will want to create a modified planting hole that acts as a tree-sized container. Begin by enlarging the original hole two to three times that of the root ball diameter and bring in sufficient topsoil mixed with peat moss or compost to amend the backfill. It’s also prudent to fertilize more often under these conditions. 


Wrap it up

It is fairly common to wrap young tree trunks to prevent temperature fluctuation, cold-weather injury, mower damage, sun scald and/or animal damage. Tree wraps should be used if recommended, and wraps used to prevent damage during transportation could be used for the first winter and removed in spring. Loose-fitting, corrugated-plastic tubing (split lengthwise) makes more sense and is recommended for planting in relatively remote areas. The hardware store will have several sizes of the inexpensive tubing.

When the mower, string trimmer or rabbits are among the young tree’s worst enemies, pinning a short length of mesh fencing loosely around the base of the tree should be all you need.


Dorothy and her husband live on the family farm near Julian, Nebraska, that her grandfather purchased more than 100 years ago. She spent 40 years teaching, and now enjoys writing full time.