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How to Plant Trees Properly


People don’t grow trees. Trees grow in spite of people. For the most part, trees are tough, durable and easy to plant and transplant if treated in a sensible and natural way.

To plant any tree (shade, fruit, big, little, native or introduced) here’s the plan:

1. Dig A Wide Ugly Hole. Dig a very wide, rough-sided hole, 3 to 4 times wider than the tree ball, especially at the soil surface. Square-shaped holes also work. The point is to prevent the roots from circling in the hole. Do not dig small, smooth-sided holes in other words. The width of the bottom of the hole isn’t important, but the depth of the hole should be exactly the same as the height of the ball. Measure - don’t guess. It’s better to dig a little shallow rather than too deep. If a little bit of the ball is sticking out of the ground after planting, that’s okay, but when you over dig and have to put backfill under the ball, the tree can settle and drown. If you set the ball too low in the first place, that can be even worse.

2. Run a Perk Test - When time allows, dig the hole and then before planting fill the hole with water. Only plant the next day if the water has drained from the hole.

3. Treat the Root System - Container-grown trees often have root-bound balls. If so, rip the outer edge, tear the roots loose and don’t worry about hurting the tree. Ball and burlapped trees don’t need this treatment. Not only do tightly bound roots have great difficulty breaking away and growing into the surrounding soil, they also prevent moisture from getting into the rootball.

4. Backfill with Existing Soil. Backfill with nothing except soil that came out of the hole. No bark, no peat moss, no compost, no foreign soil, and no fertilizer goes into the backfill. If the backfill is softer than the surrounding soil a “pot effect” is created in the ground which makes properly watering difficult and encourages roots to circle in the hole. Circling roots can eventually kill the tree. Settle the soil with water – don’t tamp. No feet, 2x4s or anything else. Simply let the weight of water settle the soil naturally.

5. Mulch the Top of the Ball. After the backfill is settled and leveled with the surrounding grade, cover the disturbed area with a 1-inch layer of a 50/50 mix of compost and lava sand. Any volcanic rock material can be used if lava sand isn’t available and earthworm casting can substitute for the compost. In fact, earthworm casting is a high quality form of compost. Finally, add a 3-inch or greater layer of shredded tree trimmings. Native cedar is the best choice.

6. Do Not Wrap or Stake. The ill-advised technique of staking trees was probably started years ago by those who planted bare-rooted trees and mistakenly put soft potting soil in the hole as backfill. Wrapping material around tree trunks probably got started because it looked important. Landscape contractors have admitted to me that brown paper wrap, tree stakes and guy wires and even the troublesome watering rings are added to newly planted trees for no other reason than to impress the homeowner. Never mind the fact that all these additions are detrimental to the young trees. Tree staking with wires, ropes or cables cuts into the bark or at least crushes the cambium layer (even if rubber hoses are used) and causes stress and long term injury. Staking also prevents the natural movement of the tree in the wind which prevents the development of trunk caliper and trunk strength.

I have asked many people, including contractors, landscape architects and others, what is the purpose of wrapping gauze, paper, cardboard or burlap around the trunks of newly planted trees. The answers range all over the place, but include protection from insects, diseases, lawn mowers and weed eater damage and sunburn. Some tree wrappers admit that the only reason is that everyone does it. Look at the bark under some tree wrapping that’s been in place a while you’ll see that the cover actually encourages and protects insects and diseases and causes weak, shriveled bark - just like leaving a bandage on your finger too long. The only possible reason to wrap tree trunks is the rare possibility of sunburn to the trunks of thin- barked trees. If you’re worried about that, use a white wash of ½ white latex paint and ½ water. The tree will grow it off naturally. Tree Trunk Goop could also be used.

Trees planted properly don’t need the stakes, the wrapping, or the expense.

7. Do Not Build Water Dikes. If you plant your trees correctly, these things aren’t necessary. Supposedly these water ring dike things form a dish that makes watering more efficient. Problem with that thought process is that when trees are backfilled with the existing native soil and a thick layer (3 to 5 inches) of mulch is tossed down on top of the disturbed area, moisture will stay in the root zone for a long time without the cost or inconvenience of the watering rings. If you build water rings around the trees, you have to tear them down at some point or you’ll have “watering bumps” around your trees forever.

8. Do Not Cut Back The Top. Thinning out the top of transplants and new trees is another old time procedure that just doesn’t make sense. Alleged experts still recommend cutting away as much as 50% of the top growth to compensate for root loss. I’ve planted lots of trees, including fruit trees, and they always establish and start to grow better when all of the limbs are left on the tree. Dr. Carl Whitcomb has proven this with his plant research. See the Appendix for information on his books and research. Trees need foliage to collect sunlight, manufacture food and grow. There are two exceptions in Texas - live oaks and yaupons transplanted from the wild. They do respond positively to a thinning of about 40% of the top. Why? Don’t know. Haven’t figured it out yet.

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