Master Gardener: How to perfectly plant a tree |

Master Gardener: How to perfectly plant a tree

Gwen Swenson-Hale
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Planting a spruce. (Courtesy photo)

Of all the plants you might plant on your property, trees are usually the most expensive, last the longest and make the largest impact. Yet, improper planting techniques doom many trees to lackluster growth if not outright death. Following are the proven steps for best tree planting practices.

1. Determine the depth of the planting hole. The ideal depth is so the root ball sits slightly above grade, with no soil over the top. The root ball should be placed on undisturbed soil, not soil that has been amended or dug.

2. Dig a saucer-shaped planting hole three times the root ball diameter. This allows the root system to grow rapidly and minimize post-planting stress.

3. Set the tree in place, removing container/wrappings. There are various techniques for doing this depending on what container your tree is in. Usually, lay the tree gently on its side and wiggle or cut off the wrappings. Never pull the tree out by the trunk. If the roots are circled inside the container, shave off the outer 1 to 1 1/2 inches of the root ball so the roots can easily grow outward and upward. Once the root ball is in place in the hole, check, again, the proper depth of the hole and make any changes necessary so the top of the root ball is 1 to 2 inches above grade.

4. Backfill. When replacing the dirt that was initially dug up, don’t chop it into tiny pieces or pack it down tightly. Also make sure to leave the top of the root ball exposed to the air without any backfill on top.

5. No staking needed. If properly planted, on undug soil, most trees don’t need staking. In fact, staking may be worse for the tree.

6. Water to settle soil. Water the entire saucer area and a bit beyond. There is no need to stomp on the soil after watering.

7. Final grade. If after watering the backfill soil has sunk more than below grade, add some more soil to bring it back level to grade.

8. Mulch. Ideally, you should use 3 to 4 inches of wood/bark chips over the backfill area and beyond. Do not put mulch on top of the root ball or against the trunk.

Now, you have the perfectly planted tree. One final note: The main reason transplanted trees fail is that they are planted too deep.

Gwen Swenson-Hale is a 2021 master gardener graduate. She moved full-time to Steamboat Springs in 2018 and has made many mistakes in the past planting trees.

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