For a tree to survive long enough to reach full maturity, it must get a healthy head start with a proper planting. How do you plant a tree yourself? We turned to our resident expert, This Old House landscaping contractor Roger Cook.
Here, Roger shares his secrets for each step of the planting process from digging the hole to watering techniques for proper hydration. And don’t miss his comprehensive three-year plan for maintaining a young tree.
Steps to Planting a Tree Yourself:
Planting a Tree
Planting a tree isn’t particularly difficult because you don’t need any special tools. With a shovel, tape measure, and garden hose, plus the strength and patience to dig a hole, it should take only a few hours. Planting it right, however, does require some attention to detail. Here, This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook shows how to add a young shade tree to a sunny front yard.
Surprisingly, tree planting is often done incorrectly, says Roger. “I see improperly planted trees all the time, many of them put in by professional landscapers.”
The most common mistake is burying the entire root ball because the hole is too deep. Not watering enough after planting is another common mistake. Roger suggests tying drip- irrigation bags to the tree and refilling them everyday.
(Click “enlarge this image” to read illustration labels.)
Mark the ground
Decide where you want the tree. Stay at least 15 feet away from the house, sidewalk, driveway, and other trees. Also, watch out for overhead power lines — most shade trees will grow at least to the height of residential power lines. Drive a stake into the ground at that spot.
Measure the diameter of the tree’s root ball.
Use a can of brightly colored spray paint to mark a circle around the stake that’s two to three times wider in diameter than the root ball.
Tip: Use special marking paint, which has a spray nozzle that works when the can is tilted upside down.
Measure the height of the root ball
Stand the tree upright and untie the burlap from around the base of the trunk.
Use a cultivator or garden trowel to carefully remove the soil from the top of the root ball. Excavate only enough soil to expose the root flare, which is where the trunk spreads out into the individual roots.
Now, measure the height of the root ball from the ground to the top of the exposed root flare.
Tip: Don’t untie the burlap beyond the root flare at this point.
Dig the hole
Subtract 2 inches from the height of the root ball; that’s how deep to dig the hole. It’s critical that you don’t go any farther, since a deeper hole will bury the root flare.
Use a pointed shovel to cut through the grass all around the perimeter of the painted outline. Remove the grass and discard it or transplant it elsewhere; don’t use it to backfill the hole.
Spread a plastic tarp beside the hole and shovel the soil onto the tarp, not directly onto the grass, so you can easily get it back into the hole when the time comes.
Measure the depth of the hole
Drive a stake (or your shovel) into the ground beside the hole and tie a string to it at grass level.
Pull the string taut across the hole and measure down from it to the bottom of the hole.
If necessary, dig out more soil to reach the desired depth. Then use the shovel to scrape the bottom of the hole flat.
Dust the hole with superphosphate, which will promote a healthy root system, following the directions for your size tree on the packaging.
Position the tree
Carefully carry or roll the tree into the hole.
Stand back and view the tree as a helper slowly rotates it. Look for the tree’s best face (every tree has one) and position it so the face is aimed in the most prominent direction—typically toward the street.
Remove the wire basket from the root ball with bolt cutters or metal snips.
Tip: To avoid damage, have a helper support the crown of the tree as you move it.
Loosen densely packed soil
Remove any twine, then peel away the burlap. It’s not necessary to remove the basket or burlap from the very bottom of the root ball.
Use a cultivator to loosen the tightly packed soil around the ball and expose the hundreds of tiny roots.
Backfill the hole
Spread superphosphate and 3-4-3 fertilizer onto the soil pile, using the amounts recommended for your size tree on the packaging, and scratch it into the soil.
Thoroughly mix up the soil, then start shoveling it into the hole. Be careful not to bury the root flare.
When the hole is full, use the blade of the shovel to form a 6-inch-high curbing around the tree.
Next, use a garden hose to fill the crater you created with water. As the water absorbs into the soil, knock down the curbing and smooth out the dirt.
Set up drip-irrigation bags
Spread 3 inches of bark mulch over the exposed dirt around the tree, but keep it away from the tree’s trunk. Mulch can trap moisture and promote rot.
Loosely tie two drip-irrigation bags to the tree. Fill each with water.
Refill the irrigation bags each day, or as necessary, for six to eight weeks to give the root system enough time to become established.
Tip: If you don’t use drip-irrigation bags, be sure to water the tree every day for at least six weeks.