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How to Choose and Plant a Tree

To ensure a tree has a good future, choose a nice specimen with attractive foliage, undamaged bark, and a burlapped root ball

roger cook and another man demonstrate how to plant a tree
Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Q: I want to plant a tree in remembrance of my grandson. What can I do to make sure it survives? —Peggy Curvin, Imlay City, Mich.

A: Roger Cook replies: Planting a tree certainly is a wonderful way to remember a loved one. To make sure a new tree has a good future, choose a location at least 15 feet from the house and where there aren't any overhead utility lines.

A local nursery can help you identify the most suitable trees for your spot. Next, look for a nice specimen, one with attractive foliage, undamaged bark, and a burlapped root ball. (Container-grown trees may have stunted, pot-bound root systems, which makes them less resilient and harder to establish.)

Have the nursery deliver your tree as close to the planting site as is practical. Then follow these steps to give your living memorial its best chance to reach a healthy maturity.

To watch Roger plant the tree, go to Ask TOH | Tree, Basement Drain


Steps // How to Choose and Plant a Tree
1 ×

Mark the Location

 
Step One // How to Choose and Plant a Tree

Mark the Location

roger cook marks the location for how to plant a healthy tree
Photo by Anthony Tieuli

The hole should be at least two times the root ball's diameter. Drive a stake where you want the trunk, and make a loop of string the same length as the hole's radius. Stretch the loop between the stake and a step edger, as shown, and use the edger to cut a circle in the lawn. Pull the stake and strip the grass from the circle with a grub hoe.

 
2 ×

Excavate

 
Step Two // How to Choose and Plant a Tree

Excavate

roger cook excavates the location for how to plant a healthy tree
Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Dig a flat-bottom hole, shoveling the soil onto a tarp. Stop when the hole is slightly shallower than the depth of the root ball, measured from where the trunk's base flares out. (If the flare is buried, unwrap the ball and pull away soil and roots to expose it.) To check hole depth, measure down from a string stretched across it, as shown.

 
3 ×

Prep the Roots

 
Step Three // How to Choose and Plant a Tree

Prep the Roots

roger cook Prep the Roots for how to plant a healthy tree
Photo by Anthony Tieuli

With a helper, use the trunk to gently roll the ball into the hole, then set the tree upright. Spin the ball until the tree's best face is forward, and plumb the trunk. Now cut away the ball's twine and wire and remove the burlap. Using a hand cultivator, loosen the soil around the root ball, as shown, to expose the outermost roots.

 
4 ×

Backfill and Water

 
Step Four // How to Choose and Plant a Tree

Backfill and Water

roger cook adds Water and Stakes for how to plant a healthy tree
Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Backfill around the root ball, leaving no air pockets. Don't cover it or stomp on the backfill. Build a ring of soil around the tree about 4 inches high.

Fill the inside of the ring with water and thoroughly saturate the roots and backfill. I don't usually brace newly planted trees, but this one is too top heavy. It's supported by two upright 6-foot stakes and chain-lock tree ties (gemplers.com) loosely looped around the trunk. Remove the stakes and ties after the tree's first winter.

 
5 ×

Mulch

 
Step Five // How to Choose and Plant a Tree

Mulch

roger cook adds Mulch for how to plant a healthy tree
Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Level out the soil ring and spread a 3-inch layer of mulch, keeping it 3 inches from the trunk. Next, tie a drip-irrigation bag (treegator.com) to the trunk, as shown. Refill it daily for a week, then weekly—more often in hot weather—until the tree goes dormant. Next season, fill the bag only during dry spells. After that, the tree should be fine.

 
 
 

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