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Basic Tree Planting

Late Fall after the leaves drop to early Spring before budbreak is the best time to plant a tree. The weather is cool and allows plants to establish roots in the new location before the spring showers and summer heat. Before purchasing a new tree, be sure to research local species native to your area. The tree will be a lifetime investment, and how it will grow will depend on the care you provide. If the tree you are planting is balled or bare root, it is important to understand that its root system has been reduced 90-95% of its original size during transplanting. Trees will commonly exhibit transplant shock that is indicated by slow growth and reduced vigor.

Be sure that you have all underground utilities located prior to digging by dialing 811.

Prepare the planting hole.

Dig the hole twice as wide as the root ball to give room for the roots to grow without stress, but only as deep as the root ball itself. If the tree has a wire root basket, there is no need to cut it off. The roots will grow through it. Try to dig a hole with a “pedestal” of dirt in the center of the hole. The pedestal prevents the root ball from sitting continuously in water. Any excess water will naturally flow to the deeper areas of the hole around the edges where the tree can drink from if needed. The pedestal is very important since one major reason why trees die is “drowning”. The point where the tree comes out of the ground should be ¼”- ½” higher than the ground around it. This prevents water from collecting next to the base of the trunk which will cause the tree to rot.

Prep the tree for planting.

Avoid handling the tree with the burlap off. Put it in the hole first, then cut the burlap and rope from around the trunk of the tree, leaving the wire basket. Try to keep as much dirt around the roots as possible; moving the tree more than necessary can cause air to get in to the roots and dry them out. Do not leave a tree’s roots out of its container or burlap for too long. It could dry out and damage roots.

Place the tree gently into the hole.

The ground level of the plant should match up with the ground level after you fill in the hole. Do not bury over the crown or leave roots exposed. Before you begin backfilling, view the tree from different angles to be sure it is straight. Once you begin backfilling, it is more difficult to reposition the tree.

Backfill with compost or composted manure.

Backfill ¾ of the hole with existing dirt, mixed with ¼ compost or composted manure. Fill the hole 1/3 full and gently but firmly pack the soil around base of the root ball. As you fill the remainder of the hole, firmly pack soil to eliminate air pockets that could cause roots to dry out. You can even add soil a few inches at a time and settle with water. It is not recommended to apply fertilizer at time of planting. It tends to “burn out” the tree, making it less likely to do well long term. You can however use an organic mixture that includes micorrhizae, a fungi that enhances a tree’s uptake of soil nutrients. If you are planting a fruit or nut tree, adding compost or manure is essential. Be sure to leave a dirt ring called a berm, resembling a “doughnut”, around the root ball of the tree after backfilling. This will help with watering the roots.

Mulch Time.

Cover the planting hole with 1-3” of shredded hardwood of leaf mulch. More than 3” may cause a problem with oxygen and moisture levels. Keep the mulch 2-3” away from the trunk to prevent rot. Do not over-mulch the tree. A few inches are enough to keep water in and most weeds out. Mulch a circle out to the drip line, about the same width as the tree’s leaves.

Water it again.

Water the tree again one hour after planting.

Stake the tree if necessary.

If the tree is susceptible to lawn mower damage, vandalism, or windy conditions, then protective staking may be beneficial. However, studies have shown that trees establish more quickly and develop stronger trunk and root systems if they are not staked at time of planting. Be sure to remove the stakes once the roots have a change to establish, after the first year.

Follow Up Care.

Keep the soil moist but not soaked. Overwatering can cause the leaves to turn yellow or fall off. Water at least once a week, barring rain, and more frequently during hot weather. When the soil is dry below the mulch, it is time to water. Continue until mid-fall, then taper off for lower temperatures. A long, slow trickle of water will water deeper than a sprinkle.

Tips:
  • It is very important that the roots make immediate contact with the backfill soil.

  • Fertilize fruit and nut trees monthly

  • Water tree weekly for first year; 2-3 quarts for every foot in height.

  • When purchasing tree, be sure it’s leaves are green and not drooping.

  • Consider the mature height and spread of the tree before planting. A larger tree can cause damage to your home.

  • Do not plant a tree too deep.

  • Do not amend the backfill soil excessively. The roots will not spread to surrounding soil.

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