The first thing you need to know about planting a tree is to take everything you’ve seen city workers in your town do when it comes to planting a tree and banish it from your memory. Frankly, the fact that most of them can do what they do to trees and the trees still grow speaks far more to the fact that it’s pretty easy to make a tree grow than about any knowledge that city-tree planters have. Oh, I know, I’m generalizing and your brother’s best friend’s brother is a city maintenance worker who plants trees in the town three over from yours and he does a great job. Yes, that’s right, I’m sure he does and I’m not talking about him (um, probably).
But the fact is, there aren’t a lot of things you have to remember about planting a tree. The toughest part is just moving the darn tree around. Here’s a primer on how to do it right.
Site your tree. Think about where you want it to go, stick something tallish there and let it simmer for a couple days while you make sure you like the location, because one thing trees DON’T like is being moved so pick the right spot the first time. Here I just stuck the shovel in to represent the tree’s location.
Dig a hole. You want the hole to be at least twice as wide as the rootball but three times wider (or more) is better. The more compact your soil, the more digging you should do to help the roots spread. The hole only should be as deep as the rootball (you can use your shovel handle to make an approximate measurement). If you have good soil, no amending is necessary. If you feel you need to amend your soil, you can replace up to one-third of the soil with compost or another amendment and mix it in with the soil dug from the hole.
Scope out which side of your tree is the best and mark it if need be. Move the tree right next to the hole (preferably with a friend, or several, depending on the size of the tree). If it’s in a container, take a sharp knife and cut the sides of the container away to free it from the container; you don’t wan to damage the crown. If it’s balled and burlapped carefully cut away any twine and strapped and pull away the burlap. Then slide it into the hole, with the good side facing your chosen direction.
Straight the trunk as best you can, then step back and look at it from every angle to make sure it’s straight. If it’s not it will drive you nuts for the next several years. Since this tree will be viewed from about 300 degrees, I did several walks around it to make sure it was straight.
Double check the depth. I like the root ball to be about an inch higher than the surrounding ground because some settling can occur. Even with the ground is fine too, but deeper than it was in the container is not good.
Fill the hole with water. Water is absolutely key to the success of your tree, and I like to make sure it’s nice and moist from the get go. If you need to backfill a little dirt to stabilize the tree, that’s fine, but before I do the full on backfill, I like to fill the hole with water and let it soak into the rootball and the surrounding ground.
Once most of the water is absorbed you can back fill. Just fill in the dirt, making sure not to leave big air pockets. You can lightly tamp down the dirt around the tree to stabilize it, but you don’t need to tap dance on it or anything.
At this point, the top of the root ball closest to the trunk should be showing, but the edges should be covered up. Do not pile extra dirt on top of the rootball. Build up a little wall a couple feet out from the trunk to create a little moat that will hold in water when you water (you can also use one of the many tree watering devices that provide drip irrigation, which is really the best thing for your tree).
Spread some mulch at the base of the tree. Keep it at least 3 inches away from the trunk and don’t spread it more than 2 inches thick or so. You’re just trying to prevent weed growth and contain moisture, not keep it warm. Do not, under any circumstances, pile up tons of mulch in some kind of volcano-type form like every city tree I’ve ever seen. All this does is help choke out the crown of your tree. I also do not believe in staking trees unless it’s absolutely necessary (such as being in a high traffic area where it needs a little protection until it’s strong enough to fend off accidental attackers). Trees that are allowed to sway in the breeze grow stronger trunks that will be better off in the long run.
That’s really all there is to it. Most small trees can be planted in 30 minutes or less, and given what they turn into in a few years, it’s a pretty amazing return on your time investment.
Erin blogs about gardening, cottage living and her DIY foibles at The Impatient Gardener (www.theimpatientgardener.com). A master gardener, she lives with her husband, Mr. Much More Patient, two Newfoundland dogs and disinterested cat in southeastern Wisconsin where she wishes things would just start growing a little quicker.