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Tree Planting Tips

So here you are, home from the garden center with a beautiful tree, ready to be planted, alone with the risk that you might plant it wrong and the tree won't grow correctly or may even die! Rest assured that planting a tree is a simple DIY task for a homeowner and following a few simple guidelines, your new tree will grow to its full potential in your yard.


The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today.- a Proverb of Unknown Origin

The best time to plant trees is when there is plenty of rain to help the tree establish its roots. Spring and Fall are ideal times to plant a tree in Rhode Island.

Siting a Tree Correctly

choosing a location

Your first step is to "site the tree" properly so that it looks good after you plant it, but also looks good when the tree is mature. So, look at the tag that came with the tree and read the section that describes the mature height and width. A couple of common obstacles that you should try to avoid:

  • Planting a medium to large shade tree under power lines. This looks good on planting day, but will lead to problems as the tree matures.
  • Planting close to sewer lines and septic tanks. Tree roots can damage the pipes and containers. Also, should you ever need to work on the lines or tanks, the tree will probably have to be uprooted to get to the equipment.
  • Planting too close to the house. This is probably the most common homeowner mistake. Problems arise when roots interfere with the foundation and also when branches hit the house on a windy night.

Here's a tip for siting. When I am planting a tree that has a breadth over four feet, I stand where I want the trunk to be and hold out a long object (typically a rake) to estimate the radius of the plant's mature size. While holding the rake, I spin in a complete circle to get a sense of the area that will be directly under the mature tree.
Once you have selected your spot, place the tree over that spot and stand back around 20 feet or so and look at it from a few angles. Do you like where it is? Imagine it fully mature while you evaluate your siting choice.

Get Ready to Plant

dig a hole

The first step is to dig a hole. The hole should be a little bit wider and deeper than the depth of the root ball or container. I like to have some loose soil under the tree so that the roots have quick and successful penetration into the soil.

if roots are long, cut them

Next, you will take your tree out of the pot and examine the root ball. Try to fray the roots so that they are not wrapped around the root ball. If the roots are really wound around the root ball, cut them with a razor blade. This is an important step. The reason that it matters so much is that your tree's roots will continue to grow in the direction that they started. If a tree's roots are wrapped around the rootball like a ball of yarn, the roots will continue to grow in that shape and the tree may topple over in a wind storm due to the roots not going deep enough into the surrounding soil.

Planting the Tree

planting depth

If you plan to use fertilizer, use it cautiously. A small amount of 10-10-10 slow release fertilizer is recommended. Keep in mind that the goal of a good planting is to encourage plants to establish deep roots. If the tree is satisfied with nutrients and water in the hole, it will not go looking deeper for more and when drought or storms come the tree may die or fall over from a lack of roots.

Now you are going to place the tree into the hole in such a way that the top of the root ball one inch above the surrounding grade. Another factor for successful tree placement is that the tree sits plumb, or in other words, that it points straight up. Take your time with this step, get it right - you are almost done.
Next, you will backfill the dirt from the hole you dug into the gap that surrounds the root ball. As you are doing this, create a dish of soil that will act like a dam around all sides of the tree. And fill the dish with mulch.

To Stake or Not to Stake

If your tree is tall (over 5 feet), you should stake the tree for its first year with 3 stakes and some straps. This is very important in order to preserve the new, small roots that will reach out pass the root ball into the surrounding yard. During windy storms there is a high level of stress placed on those roots and the stakes will carry the load of the tree leaning instead of the new, thin roots carrying the load.

Almost Done!

water the tree

Finally, water the tree and use lots of water for the first few weeks. Now that your tree is planted, sit back and enjoy a cold beverage somewhere near your tree so that you can admire your work!

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