tree planting tips


You may have heard the expression “Plant a $5 tree in a $100 hole.”  But what does it mean? Buy a cheap tree? Line the planting hole with gold?

Of course not! It means that more time and effort needs to go into planting the tree than is usually the case.

Unfortunately, careless or improper planting usually dooms a newly planted tree. If you mess up this step, it doesn’t matter what else you do – the tree is unlikely to survive.


Choose the Right Tree

Before you plant, make sure that you’ve chosen the best tree for your location. Consider exposure (sun vs shade), mature size, water and soil needs, proximity to buildings and overhead wires, and hardiness zone, as well as the overall look you’re going for.

>> Learn more about how to choose the best tree for your landscape

If you’re planting an ornamental tree, be aware that it’s likely budded (meaning that a single bud of the desired cultivar is placed on the rootstock of a different cultivar and allowed to grow). You’ll notice a slight bend in the trunk about 2″ to 3″ above the ground – make sure that this is above the ground when you plant the tree.

Plant at the Right Depth

More trees die from being planted too deeply than from any other reason.

First, determine the proper planting depth by looking for the trunk flare – that’s the area at the base of the trunk where it starts to get wider, just above the roots. When the tree is planted you want that to be just above the soil surface, so measure from that point to the bottom of the root ball to determine how deep you should dig the planting hole (use a measuring tape).

Don’t assume that the depth at which you found the tree in the container is the proper depth at which to plant it. Many trees are placed into the container (or wrapped in burlap) with the trunk flare buried under several inches of soil. This is done to help improve stability while in the nursery or garden center (it’s hard to sell trees that keep falling out of their container). In the short term, the tree can survive this; but once it’s planted, it won’t live for long if the trunk flare is underground.

Dig the planting hole only as deep as the root ball. 

Do not disturb the soil under the rootball; it doesn’t need to be loosened for tree roots to penetrate it. Leaving it alone will provide a solid foundation for the tree so that, over time, it doesn’t sink lower into the ground.

If in doubt about depth, it’s better to dig the hole to shallow than too deep.

Go Wide

Dig the hole about 2 to 3 times wider than the container or root ball. The roots need to be able to easily spread out into the surrounding soil to help stabilize the tree and take up water and nutrients.

This is not the time to take shortcuts. Digging a wide hole can be strenuous work but if the planting hole is too small, the roots can start growing around in circles instead of spreading out. Girdling like this eventually kills the tree.

Remove Any Extras

You may have heard that it’s okay to leave burlap wrapped around the root ball when you plant it but we recommend that you remove any burlap, wire basket and/or nylon rope before planting. While natural burlap may disintegrate over time, the wire basket and nylon rope definitely won’t. Instead, they’ll prevent the roots from spreading out, leading to an unstable and poorly developed tree.

If the tree is in a container, gently remove the container while disturbing the rootball as little as possible. Prune any roots that may be circling around the rootball.

Keep It Simple

Don’t add topsoil or potting mix when you fill the planting hole. There’s no need to provide the tree with “good dirt”; just use whatever came out of the hole when you dug it.

Water Well

Tamp the soil firmly around the tree to eliminate air pockets but don’t stomp on the soil or try to compact it.

Be sure to water your tree in well right after planting and then water every 7 to 10 days over the first two years during June through October. A slow 2-hour soaking with a garden hose running at a slow trickle works well and provides the deep watering your new tree needs. To help keep water near the tree when you irrigate, build a small wall of soil around the planting hole. Learn more about watering your trees here>>

Mulch Around the Tree

Spread a 2-3″ layer of mulch in a 3-4 foot circle around the tree to suppress weeds, retain moisture and prevent damage to the tree from mowers and string trimmers. Keep the mulch pulled away from the trunk and do not create a “mulch volcano”!

And, generally speaking, that’s it. Although you may see many newly-planted trees tied to stakes, that’s usually not needed if the tree has been properly planted. You can learn more about tree staking here >>

As with anything that’s been newly planted, keep an eye on your new tree for insect or disease problems (which are more common when the plant is stressed, like when it’s been transplanted) and make sure the soil isn’t settling or the roots popping up.

And, of course, if you have any questions give us a call. We’re always happy to discuss options for what to plant, where to plant it and if you’d like, we’ll even plant it for you!

For our top recommendations in the Dayton area, see these articles:

Best Trees For Fall Foliage Color

Best Spring-Flowering Trees