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Planting Trees Properly



Proper drainage isn’t an option - it’s a must. If a site doesn’t drain, it won’t work, and plants won’t grow properly. Biological activity and proper nutrient exchange will be slowed or stopped - it’s that simple. Drainage can be accomplished with surface and/or underground solutions. Any sys- tem that works is a good system. There are many organic products that will improve the physical structure and the drainage of any soil, but it’s still a great benefit to start any project with proper grading and drainage tech- niques that will get rid of excess water as quickly as possible.

In residential and commercial projects, I recommend and use under- ground drain lines (perforated PVC pipe) set in gravel for hard-to-drain areas. Using pipe and gravel to drain tree holes can often be the differ- ence between the success and the failure of newly planted plants. A ditch filled with gravel to the soil’s surface is an excellent and inexpensive tool to drain water from a low spot. Use no filter fabric. It will clog up at some point and cause drainage problems.
Liquid biological products can also help improve drainage by stimulating the beneficial organisms in the soil. Aerated compost tea works well. Micronized products that contain mycorrhizal fungi are also excel- lent. Garrett Juice can also be helpful.
Trees are the most important landscape element and the only element that actually increases property value. They are the structural features of the landscape and, besides being pleasing to look at and walk under, pro- vide significant services such as blocking undesirable views, shading the ground and other plants, providing protection for wildlife, improving the soil, and providing delightful seasonal beauty. It is for all these reasons that trees need to be planted correctly so that their root systems develop properly, providing a long, healthy life with a minimum of problems.
One of the most important points in this book is applicable anywhere in the country - the world actually - and that is how to plant trees prop- erly. Almost all trees these days are being planted poorly, and the most serious infraction is planting too deep. When the top of the root ball and the root flare are buried in the ground, circling and girdling roots are hidden and many trees today are blowing over as a result. Even if that never happens, when soil is too high on the trunks of trees, the covered bark tissue stays moist all the time and plant growth is dramatically slowed or even stopped. Trees that are too deep can be uncovered with the Air Spade or by hand, but the best solution is to plant trees correctly in the first place. You will notice that I also do not recommend staking, wrapping trunks, or using other unnecessary and damaging techniques.
1. Dig a Wide, Ugly Hole
The hole should be at least twice as wide as the rootball and slightly less shallow in depth as the height of the ball. Do not guess - actually measure the height of the ball. Never plant trees in slick-sided or glazed holes such as those caused by a tree spade or auger, unless the slick sides are destroyed at planting. Holes with glazed sides greatly restrict root penetration into the surrounding soil, can cause circling roots and consequently limit proper root development.
2. Run a Perk Test
If time allows, fill holes with water and wait until the next day. If the hole doesn’t drain well, the tree needs to be moved to another location or have drainage added in the form of a PVC drain line set in gravel running from the hole to a lower point on the site. Another draining method that some - times works is a pier hole dug down from the bottom of the hole into a different soil type and filled with gravel. A sump from the top of the ball down to the bottom of the ball does little if any good. Positive drainage is critical, so do not shortcut this step. Spraying the sides of the holes with Garrett Juice or hydrogen peroxide will help initial root establishment.
3. Plant High
Most trees are planted too deep in the ground. The root flare is part of the trunk and should be above ground after planting. Remove burlap, excess soil and mulch from the surface to expose the true top of the root ball. The top of the root ball should be slightly higher than ground grade.
When planting balled and burlapped plants, it’s okay to leave burlap on the sides of the ball after planting, but loosen at the trunk and remove the burlap from the top of the ball. Remove any nylon or plastic covering or string, since these materials do not decompose and can girdle the trunk and roots as the plant grows. Studies have shown that even wire mesh should be removed to avoid root girdling.
When planting from plastic containers, carefully remove plants and tear the outside roots if they have grown solidly against the container. Never leave plants in containers. Bare-rooted, balled and burlapped, as well as container plant materials should be planted the same way. When planting bare-rooted plants, it is critical to keep the roots moist during the transportation and planting process.
4. Backfill with Existing Soil
Remove the excess soil from the top of the root ball as well as “bird’s nest” and/or circling roots. Place the tree in the center of the hole, making sure that the top of the ball is slightly higher than the sur- rounding grade. Backfill with the soil that was removed from the hole. This is a critical point. Do not add sand, foreign soil, organic material, or fertilizer into the backfill. The roots need to start growing in the native soil from the beginning. When the hole is dug in solid rock, topsoil from the same area should be used. Some native rock mixed into the backfill is beneficial. Adding amendments such as peat moss, sand or foreign soils to the backfill not only wastes money, but is detrimental to the tree. Putt- ing gravel in the bottom of the hole is a total waste of money.
5. Settle Soil with Water
Water the backfill thoroughly, making sure to get rid of all air pockets. Do not tamp the soil or air pockets will be formed and roots will be killed in these spots. Settle the soil with water only.
6. Do Not Wrap or Stake
Trunks of newly planted trees should not be wrapped. It is a waste of money, looks unattractive, harbors insects and leaves the bark weak when removed. Tree wrapping is similar to a bandage left on your finger too long. If you are worried about the unlikely possibility of sunburn, it is much better to paint the trunk with a diluted latex paint that matches the color of the bark. White is OK too. Staking and guying is usually unnecessary if the tree has been planted properly with the proper earth ball size of at least nine inches of ball for each one inch of trunk diame- ter. Staking is a waste of money and detrimental to the proper trunk development. In rare circumstances (sandy soil, tall evergreen trees, etc.) where the tree needs to be staked for a while, connect the guy wires as low on the trunk as possible and remove the stakes as soon as possible. Never leave them on more than one growing season. Staking should only be done as a last resort - it is unsightly, expensive, adds to mowing and trimming costs, and restricts the tree’s ability to develop tensile strength in the trunk and trunk diameter. It can also cause damage to the cambium layer. Remove all tags.

7. Do Not Prune
It is very bad advice to prune at planting to compensate for the loss of roots. Most trees fare much better if all the limbs and foliage are left intact. The more foliage, the more food can be produced to build the root system. Even low limbs and foliage should be left on the tree for at least two growing seasons to aid root and trunk development. The health of the root system is the key to the overall health of the tree. The only trees that seem to respond positively to thinning at the time of transplanting are field-collected live oak, yaupon holly and a few other evergreens. Plants purchased in containers definitely need no pruning, and deciduous trees never need to be thinned.

8. Mulch the Top of Ball
Mulch the top of the ball after planting with one inch of compost and then three inches of mulch tapering to zero inches at the tree trunk. This step is important in lawn areas or in beds. Do not ever plant grass over the tree ball until the tree is established. Do not build soil dykes for water. They are unsightly, unnecessary, and create a maintenance problem.
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.

  • Add volcanic rock dust product to disturbed area at 10 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft.
  • Add 1″ compost and volcanic sand.
  • Add shredded tree trimmings mulch as shown. Do not pile mulch on trucks.
  • Do not stake trees.
  • Do not wrap tree trunks.
  • Do not thin or top trees.
  • Do not build watering rings.
Note: Remove any soil that has been added to the top of root balls before planting. Remove the burlap from the top of ball and burlapped plants. Remove circling and girdling roots from all. Expose the actual top of the root ball.


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