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How Not to Plant a Tree

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Wondering how to plant a tree the right way?

We’ve put together a few simple steps on how to plant a tree so it will thrive in your garden. And we’ve described how not to plant a tree too!

First, remove the root wrappings and untangle the roots.

How to plant a tree root ball

Burlap Removed & Roots Cleaned for Planting

  • That means if your tree comes in a pot, remove the pot and break up the roots growing in circles.
  • Or, if the tree comes with roots wrapped in burlap, strapped with metal or rope, try to remove everything, carefully.
  • And, if you can, rinse away as much of the soil covering the roots as possible. But, don’t let the exposed roots dry out.
  • Moreover, if the tree is wearing a stake, remove that too. And don’t worry, we’ll get into more on this a little later.

How an arborist plants a tree…

Our arborist colleague Katy offers additional tips on how to plant a tree to avoid the failures she often sees:

  • Remove as much non-plant material surrounding the root ball as possible.
  • Plus, give the leftover roots a clean cut with sharp hand pruners to avoid unhealthy roots trying to heal while also trying to establish.
  • That’s because roots growing around and around in hard clay or with the barrier of twine or burlap will start to become good candidates to grow into girdling roots. Or they will try to find any easy access to the nicer soil they’ve been planted in and grow up and over the original ball. And, that’s a recipe for failure.

So, how deep should you plant a tree?

When you dig your planting hole, use your original root ball to be a depth guide. That’s because you shouldn’t plant the trunk of the tree below the soil surface. While roots like to live in the ground, the trunk of the tree won’t perform well under ground. And your tree will likely have stunted growth and may simply give up the ghost.

How not to plant a tree with burlap still attached.

This maple was failing to grow after a landscaper didn’t remove the burlap, wire basket or strap when s/he planted it.

Your tree trunk is not a handle.

Don’t remove the root containment materials until you are ready to put your plant in the ground. That’s because plants and rootballs heavy. And it’s important not to carry the tree by the trunk without also supporting the root system. That’s because you can easily detach the roots from the trunk if you don’t support all of the tree. And, once the top and bottom come apart, your tree won’t thrive.

Should I stake it?

Probably not, but maybe.  And, yes, do remove any stakes that come with your plant from the nursery.

You can learn more about this here.

Watering is a part of how to plant a tree.

After planting your tree, be sure to water it well. This step will help the freshly planted tree roots connect to the planet (or potting soil). But, don’t set a sprinkler or spray head to directly blast the trunk of the tree. That’s because this can lead to rot and fungal problems.

Choosing the right tree to plant is also very important.

Before you ask how to plant a tree, it’s important to be sure you choose a tree that will perform well in your space. So, make sure you select a tree that won’t grow too big for the space. That’s because chopping the top off to “shape it” will just weaken the tree, make it ugly and never achieve the results you’re after. Also, be sure the tree will grow well in your garden environment.

Tree installed with burlap, string and wire cage intact - wrong!

Tree installed with burlap, string and wire cage intact – wrong!

So, if your garden is boggy, a swamp cypress is a likely better choice than a white pine. Too, if you have hot, baking summer sun, a smoke tree is probably going to serve you well; a white variegated Japanese Maple won’t.

Wondering why your existing tree isn’t thriving?

Trees you planted (or you hired someone else to plant) may not thrive for many reasons. And planting them improperly is often the problem.

So, if you have a tree that’s doing poorly, excavate around the trunk and base of the tree. And look to see if the pot is planted in the ground. Or, you may see burlap, string or a wire cage still wrapped around the tree roots.

And, if you find the roots still wrapped and strapped into burlap, dig up the tree, and replant it properly. The younger the tree and more recent the planting, the easier this will be. Left as is, a tree planted this way will probably continue to be a sickly weakling.

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