Planting Trees in the Landscape

Care and How To

Trees are a vital part of the home landscape. Trees provide beauty, shade, and habitats for wildlife. They can also screen unsightly views, provide privacy, reduce noise pollution, lower utility bills, and provide many other benefits. The most common way to establish trees in the home landscape is to purchase balled and burlapped or container-grown plants at local garden centers and nurseries.

Balled and burlapped (B&B) trees are dug with balls of soil around their roots. The rootballs are wrapped in burlap and held in place with twine or nails. Large trees are placed in wire baskets for additional support. Balled and burlapped trees can be successfully planted from spring to fall. Container-grown trees have been grown in containers for one or more seasons. As a result, container-grown plants have well developed root systems. The planting season for container-grown stock is the same as for balled and burlapped material. Generally, container-grown plants are smaller in size and lower in price in comparison to balled and burlapped stock.

To successfully establish trees in the home landscape, it's important to follow proper planting techniques.

Planting Container-Grown Trees

Start by locating the root flare of the tree.  This is the spot on the trunk that broadens just above the soil line.  Occasionally trees are planted too deep in containers.  Remove any soil off the top of the rootball to expose the root flare if needed.

Dig a hole that is 2 to 3 times wider than the diameter of the container. The depth of the hole should be 2 or 3 inches less than the height of the rootball. Slope the sides of the hole so the top of the hole is several inches wider than the bottom.

In poorly drained soils, the depth of the hole should be approximately two-thirds the height of the soil ball.

Once the hole has been prepared, carefully lay the tree on its side. Tap the sides of the container to loosen the soil ball from the container, then slide the tree out of its container. It's often necessary to cut off the containers of large, container-grown trees. Also, cut away the containers of poorly established trees to prevent the soil ball from falling apart. Begin by cutting off the bottom of the container. Place the tree in the hole, then, cut away the sides of the container. All containers should be removed, even supposedly plantable containers.

If the sides of the soil ball are a mass of roots, shave the outer 1/2 inch of soil off the rootball with a sharp knife or spade. The goal is to remove any roots that are circling the rootball and leave behind roots that are pointed straight out from the rootball.  Also, if possible, make a 1/2-inch-deep, x-shaped cut on the bottom of the soil ball.

Carefully place the tree in the hole. The top of the soil ball should be approximately 2 or 3 inches above the surrounding soil. In poorly drained sites, the top one-third of the soil ball should stick above the surrounding soil.

Gradually fill the hole with soil. With each new addition of soil, firm it in place with your hands. Do not add compost, peat, or other organic materials to the soil.  Once planted, water thoroughly.  

Planting Balled and Burlapped Trees

Start by locating the root flare of the tree.  This is the spot on the trunk where the roots meet the trunk and is characterized by widening or flaring out just above the soil line.  Pull back the burlap and twine if needed to find it.  Often in the process of digging trees for B&B the root flare gets buried in the rootball.  Remove any soil off the top of the rootball to expose the root flare.

Dig a planting hole with a width that is 2 to 3 times the diameter of the tree's rootball. The depth of the hole should be 2 or 3 inches less than the height of the soil ball. Slope the sides of the hole so the top is several inches wider than the bottom.

Grasping the tree's rootball, carefully lower the tree into the hole. The top of the rootball should be approximately 2 or 3 inches above the surrounding soil line. Make sure the trunk is straight. Then, begin backfilling with the original soil. Do not add compost, peat, or other organic materials to the soil. Gently firm the backfill soil in the hole with your hands.

When the planting hole is one-half full, cut and remove all twine. Also, cut away and remove the burlap on the top one-third to one-half of the root ball. If the rootball is in a wire basket, remove the top one-third to one-half of the basket. Completely fill the remainder of the hole with soil. Place soil up to the top of the rootball and gradually slope it down to the surrounding soil line. Thoroughly water the tree.

Poorly drained sites are difficult locations for many trees. When selecting trees for these sites, choose trees that can tolerate poorly drained conditions. When planting, the depth of the planting hole should be approximately two-thirds of the height of the rootball. When placed in the hole, the top one-third of the soil ball should be above the surrounding soil. When backfilling, place soil to the top of the rootball and gradually slope it down to the surrounding soil line.


Care for Newly-Planted Trees

Watering

The key to watering newly planted trees is to check the moisture status of the plant's root-ball. The roots of newly planted trees are initially confined to the plant's rootball. Newly planted trees should be watered when the rootball (not the surrounding soil) begins to dry out. Frequently check the moisture status of the rootball as it can dry out quickly. To water the rootball, slowly apply water to the base of the tree. The frequency of watering can be reduced and the watering area enlarged as the tree's root system begins to grow into the surrounding soil. Small trees usually require watering for 1 or 2 growing seasons. It may be necessary to water large trees for 3 or 4 years.

Mulching

To help conserve moisture, place 2 to 4 inches of mulch, such as wood chips or shredded bark, around trees. Mulches also help control weeds, moderate soil temperatures, and reduce the risk of mechanical damage to tree trunks from errant lawnmowers and string-trimmers.

When mulching trees, do not place mulch against the tree's trunk. Feather mulch up to but not covering the root flare.  Ideally the mulch is only shallowly covering the soil at least 6 inches away from the trunk of the tree. Mulch piled against the tree trunk may create favorable conditions for fungal cankers, root rots, insects, and rodents.

Fertilization

It is generally not necessary to fertilize newly planted trees. Most Iowa soils can supply sufficient amounts of nutrients during establishment. If the trees are growing poorly 2 to 3 years after planting, fertilization may be beneficial. Poorly growing trees often exhibit sparse foliage, yellow-green leaves, or short annual twig growth.

Pruning

Trees utilize sugars and other carbohydrates manufactured by the foliage for plant growth. Therefore, avoid the temptation to severely prune newly planted trees. Severe pruning reduces the tree's ability to manufacture food and actually slows plant growth. Newly planted trees require only corrective pruning. Remove structural defects, such as double leaders and dead, broken, or crossing branches.

Retain most of the lower branches to help stabilize the tree. Research shows that these lower branches provide food for the growing tree and improve the trunk size and strength. Gradually remove the lower limbs as the tree grows during the first 5 to 10 years until the canopy is at the desired height.  Remove lower branches when they are 1 to 2 inches in diameter or less.  If lower branches on young trees are in the way of mowing, then remove the grass and mulch the area to keep the mower further away from the tree.

Staking

Staking is not required for most newly planted trees. However, top-heavy trees and those planted in windy, exposed sites may require staking. If staking is necessary, allow the trunk to move or sway for proper trunk and root development. To prevent damage to the trunk, use strong, wide strips of canvas, rubber, or other materials to support the tree. Remove the stakes as soon as possible. In most cases, stakes can be safely removed after one growing season.

Wrapping

Wrapping protective materials around the trunks of newly planted trees is usually not necessary during the growing season.   There appears to be little or no benefit to tree wraps during this time. Tree wraps are beneficial on young trees to prevent rodent damage or sunscald injury during the winter months.  If you do decide to use a tree wrap, place it around the tree in fall (November) and promptly remove it the following spring (April).

 

Updated from an article that originally appeared in the May 3, 2006 issue of Horticulture and Home Pest News, pp. 45-47.

Last Reviewed: 
May, 2022
Video: