Time Your Tree Planting Just Right
While you can technically plant a tree any time of the year, some seasons are better than others. When it comes to when and how to plant a tree, we get you up and digging in short order here.
Landscapers and homeowners can’t always wait for the best time to plant, and trees do get bought and planted year round in many parts of the country. So while you can pretty much plant a tree any time of year, there is a best time for most trees.
Fall is the best season to plant trees, followed by spring as the second best.
Fall is the Best Time to Plant Trees
Fall is generally filled with pleasant weather, scattered rain showers, and cooler, moderate temperatures. The rain allows the tree to establish roots relatively quickly, and the cool air prevents scorching, drought, and other stressors for your new tree.
It is a common misconception that young trees cannot survive the winter; that’s a myth. Trees go dormant in cold weather, which is the equivalent of a bear hibernating. This dormancy period slows down everything about the tree, from its growth, energy needs, thirst, and metabolism.
If you can still stick your spade into the ground, it isn’t too late in the season to plant a tree. Generally speaking, if the ground isn’t frozen, it is safe to plant trees.
Choose The Tree’s Location Carefully
Droughts, floods, storms, wind, and insects can pose a threat to trees but not nearly as significant of a threat as improper tree placement.
In urban settings especially, trees are at a greater risk of being cut down by people than they are to suffer from natural disasters.
One of the most common mistakes people new to planning landscape design tend to do is to forget to plan for the future size the tree will grow to be. To prevent the need for tree removal in the future, carefully consider the space where you intend to plant your tree.
Your Little Tree Will Grow Up – Factors to Consider
- BUILDINGS: Is it too close to other structures such as homes, outbuildings, or commercial spaces?
- ROOTS: Will the tree pose a threat to sidewalks, driveways, or concrete spaces? Roots grow broader and deeper than you may think; Expect a radius of one foot of root growth for every one inch of tree trunk diameter. A tree with a fourteen-inch trunk will have roots that spread out approximately fourteen feet, so be sure there will be plenty of room for roots.
- UTILITIES: Is there a chance the tree can grow too close to underground utilities such as power lines, fiber optic cable, water main, septic or sewer system? If you’ve ever had your power go off because someone was digging up the street, you’ll understand the need for prevention. If you’re located in the United States, be sure to call 811 before you dig as a safety precaution. This can save you from immediate and costly repair bills or eventual tree removal as the tree matures.
- ELEMENTS: How much sunshine and rainwater does the space receive? A tree of desert origin will not fare well near a ditch line, and a weeping willow tree will not survive an arid hilltop.
A common mistake in landscape design is to fail to plan for how big that little plant will grow up to be.
Dig a Big Planting Hole
Dig the hole to be three times wider than the tree’s root mass and the same depth as the tree was previously planted.
Look for the trunk flare of the tree. The trunk flare should be located right at the soil surface but never submerged in the soil. The root flare is the place where the topmost root emerges from the trunk.
It is best to plant trees a little high rather than a little too low. Place the tree at a level where 25% of the root flare is above the surrounding ground and then taper more soil to cover the roots. This method allows the tree to settle without falling below grade, creating a water bowl effect that would collect and pool excessive rain and create a number of other issues.
When planting a tree, dig hole 3x wider than the tree root ball.
Inspect the Tree and Tease Apart Root-Bound Roots
Slide the tree from its pot and inspect the roots. Shake and dig away at the soil if necessary.
If the roots are tightly wrapped up within themselves or the pot or make a circular pattern taking up the shape of the pot, this is called being root-bound. You’ll want to break that pattern immediately.
Rootbound trees have learned that they have limited space and have stopped trying to grow outwards and downwards. This will result in a prolonged death for the tree.
Scratch your fingers at the sides and bottom of the root ball to tease the roots outwards and break the pattern.
You may need to pull, break, or even cut the roots to untangle them for more severe cases. Trees can lose up to thirty percent of their roots without too much stress or issue. Don’t worry about cutting out too much of the root, because more than likely, your new tree will fare just fine.
Trees can lose up to thirty percent of their roots without too much stress or issue.
To Amend or not to Amend the Soil
Experts do not agree on the subject of adding amendments to improve the soil when planting a tree. There’s good reason for the differences of opinion, for there’s no one easy answer.
Reasons NOT to Amend the Soil
While it is tempting to amend the hole with vital nutrients for your new tree, most experts these days say not to.
Trees planted into amended soil tend not to venture into the surrounding, natural, and native ground. This results in a minor and weaker root system resulting in stunted growth and a weaker tree overall.
When the tree roots that are thriving in the healthy amendments reach the barren native walls and floor of the hole, they may not be strong enough to push into the harsher surroundings. The effect could become akin to being pot bound.
Trees planted directly into native soil (even soil lacking some nutrients) tend to grow stronger and healthier than trees planted into amended, nutritionally dense soil. https://s3.wp.wsu.edu/uploads/sites/403/2015/03/soil-amendments.pdfhttps://hort.ifas.ufl.edu/woody/amendments.shtml
However, regularly applying a layer of mulch around a tree and the surrounding area will help to restore depleted soil over time.
MYTH: You need to amend soil when planting trees, especially in poor soil.
Research reveals that amended trees often don’t thrive after the first couple years.
Reasons TO Amend the Soil When Planting a Tree
When is it good to amend the soil when planting a tree?
If you have really poor, nutrient depleted soil, or a hard clay soil, and/or if you’ve had troubled trees before, then you might consider planting a tree with amendments. However, you’ll need to dig a bigger planting hole and add only well composted amendments, worked into the existing soil as much as possible to give it the best chance for success.
Planting Trees in Clay Soil
How to Plant a Tree in 7 Simple Steps
Prior to adding amendments, you’ll need to till and/or break up the
- DIG a hole that’s 3x the size of the root ball
- LOOSEN the soil in floor and walls:
- tilling to loosen existing soil and mix in amendments
- break up hard walls and clay soil with mattock or pick to allow tree roots access
- water soil to help settle before adding the tree
- BLEND in organic matter such as:
- composted pine bark
- PLACE the tree upright in the hole:
- If your tree is in a pot, carefully lay pot on its side, firmly grasp the tree trunk and tug it from the pot. It the tree is rootbound, you can clip the roots preventing release.
- Remove carefully, any binding such as wire mesh, burlap, twine and straps
- Loosen root ball carefully with fingers to and gently spread out the roots
- Position it in the hole so that the root flare is ~25% above surface level
- View from different angles to be sure tree is upright and not leaning
- Tie it into position if needed to remain upright
- BACKFILL the hole with dirt:
- Spread and packing dirt evenly around root ball.
- Keep flare of tree (topmost roots) above the ground level
- Adjust position as needed to keep trunk straight from all angles
- WATER with high powered hose nozzle set on jet (or similar) to help eliminate air pockets and compress the soil gently while delivering water to the roots
- MULCH around the tree
Water your new tree regularly, as needed to maintain moisture without saturation, until it is well established.
How to Mulch Around a Tree
Before adding mulch, you may wish to place a tree mat weed barrier around the tree first. Then add organic matter around the tree. Start at two inches away from the base of the trunk, outwards to at least the tree’s drip line, which is the outer perimeter reach of the branches.
- Place tree mat (if using)
- Add organic mulch starting at 2″ away from base of tree trunk
- Spread outwards to tree’s drip line at about 3″ deep
What is Organic Mulch?
Organic mulch is natural materials from nature rather than man made. During the process of decomposing nutrients seep into the soil from the organic mulch, providing nourishment to plant while also helping to keep the plants moist. Mulch also helps to moderate soil temperatures by adding warmth in winter and cooling in summer.
Organic mulch can include:
- Tree leaves
- Pine needles – are good for growing blueberry bushes, but use decomposing pine needles
- Grass clippings
- Ground bark
- Wood chips (see how to get free wood chip mulch)
What Are the Benefits of Mulch?
Mulch will retain a healthy level of moisture for your tree and make it easier to mow around. A mulched circle will eliminate the need to use of a weed eater so close to the tree trunk where it can knick and damage your tree. Mulch is also a little like a daily vitamin for your tree as it slowly releases nutrients into the soil to nourish the tree.
Good organic mulch is like a time-release moisturizing multi-vitamin for plants and trees.
Regularly Water the Tree Until Established
It may take a few weeks to even a couple of years for your tree to become firmly established with a strong root system, especially in hard, barren and clay soils.
The best way to water a new tree is regular, slow and deep watering. You may use a bucket of water or an irrigation system.
How Often to Water Newly Planted Trees
Water newly planted trees every day for the first week. Then for the following two weeks, water once every other day. In the weeks following that, attempt to back off on the watering, and pay attention to how the tree responds.
Signs of Overwatering Trees
If you’re watering consistently and yet your tree leaves are turning yellow and falling early, it’s probably overwatering, so cut back on your tree watering schedule.
Signs of Underwatering Trees
If your tree’s leaves are turning brown and drying up before falling off, water more frequently.
How To Plant A Tree In A Pot
You can plant some trees into containers. Dwarf fruit trees are common choices in container-grown trees for decks, patios, balconies, greenhouses and sometimes indoors if you have adequately lighted space.
We’re growing dwarf the Meyer lemon fruit tree as well as an avocado fruit tree in large planters. The live outside in spring (after the last frost) and in summer, and indoors in fall (before the first frost) and through the winter.
Choose the Right Plant Container
Your plant pot needs to be a minimum of 18 inches wide and 12 inches deep, or larger, if your tree is already larger. It also needs to have ample drainage holes, which you can easily drill if it’s not pre-drilled.
The type of container you choose also determines how frequently you need to water.
Terracotta and ceramic pots will absorb a lot of water, meaning you’ll need to water more often. Glazed terracotta pots, glazed ceramic pots, and plastic pots will retain significantly more moisture, so you shouldn’t need to water as often.
Consider the Weight of Your Pot Once Full of Soil, Water and Tree
The type of pot or garden planter you choose is all personal preference. However, make sure you can manage it and move it as needed for cleaning and light. A tree sized pot full of dirt can be very heavy.
We favor 20-24″ polyresin pots that simulate pottery, but are actually lightweight, yet sturdy, polyresin. There are many attractive options of these nowadays, and it’s lighter and more manageable.
Weight of a Small Potted Tree Example:
A 4-5′ avocado tree slated to fruit in one year, and repotted it into a 24″ pot that holds approximately 5 gallons of soil, would weigh around 70 pounds considering plant plus watered soil. So be sure you’ll be able to manage the pot without injuring your back.
Soil weighs approximately 12 pounds per gallon in dry weight and water weighs 8.3 pounds per gallon. So a 5 gallon potted small tree would weigh around 70 lbs considering a lightweight polyresin pot with moist soil and a small tree.
Tease and Groom the Roots
Trim dead, damaged, or excessively long roots. Tease the remaining roots outwards with gentle fingers to encourage the tree to utilize the entire growing space available.
It there is dirt clinging to the root, it’s a good idea to hose it off gently, to remove as much soil as possible. Frequently, the existing soil is missing nutrients, may be hydrophobic causing it to repel water, and could even harbor pests or disease.
To Plant the Tree in Your Planter
Create a mound of soil in the center of the pot. Center the tree in the pot, resting it on the rise, allowing the roots to cascade down and around the pile of soil.
Backfill soil now. If your tree is grafted, do not allow the earth to cover the graft union. Covering the graft will allow the grated section to sprout its roots, which will cause it to overtake the grafted specialty tree as the original study rootstock sets roots and takes over.
Water the Newly Potted Tree
Watering settles the soil which helps to eliminate air pockets, while rehydrating thirsty roots and reducing stress to the tree. If the soil surface settles too much you can top it of with a little more soil. You can also add an organic mulch if you like, such as wood chips.
We like to add wood chips or polished stones for an attractive appearance in the pot. However, it’s harder to see when the soil is dry, so just be more diligent in checking with your fingers or a moisture meter.
How To Plant a Tree From a Pot
Follow the steps from the detailed first section on how to plant a tree. The only detail you should note is that when removing your tree from its pot original pot, it is best to tip the potted tree sideways and pull on the trunk to slide it out of the pot. Never pull the leaves or branches, lest they break and injure the tree during a vulnerable transition.
If the tree is rootbound to the pot, you may need to cut the pot if plastic or trim the roots carefully to free it from the pot.
How To Plant a Tree in Clay Soil
To plant in clay soil, follow the steps from the detailed first section on how to plant a tree. The only differences you should consider are how big to dig the hole and how frequently you water the tree.
Clay soils hold water exceptionally well, so place 25-40% of the root ball above the ground and then mound soil up around it. This allows the tree to maintain proper drainage so that it doesn’t drown in excess water.
To Plant a Tree in Clay Soil With Lots of Rainfall
A Gardens All community member shared this about heavy clay soil in areas with a lot of rain.
I have basically clay soil, and we get over 60 inches of rain per year here. I have to plant my sensitive fruit trees up on little hills that I make otherwise all the feeder roots will rot off and you can pull the tree out of the ground and all that’s left is the tap root.
How To Plant a Tree From Seed
Trees are naturally inclined to germinate and thrive from a seed. A quick look at any forest is proof of that.
Planting a tree seed is exceptionally easy. Simply plant the seed in autumn, water well, and leave it alone. You will see a sprout the following spring.
A Faster Way to Plant a Tree from Seed
Assisted seeds have a higher, more consistent germination rate when given just a little assistance.
Scarification, Cold Stratification, and Warm Stratification
Many tree seeds require one or more of the following treatments to stimulate germination. Depending on the species, it could be scarification, cold stratification, or warm stratification. A simple search will tell you which method your tree species needs.
Scarification is the process of breaking down the seed’s hard coating that prevents germination. These hard shells are softened and broken down by warm and wet conditions, usually occurring in the springtime. This process is slow and may take up to two years to complete.
You can speed up this process over a forty-eight-hour period by soaking the seed in hot, not boiling, water. Drop the seed in a cup of hot water and leave it alone for two days.
Alternately, you can scratch it up a little with sandpaper. Both soaking or scratching the surface help to break open the harder seed shell so that the inner tree can begin to break free and sprout.
Afterward, you may plant your seed.
Cold stratification mimics winter conditions.
Soak your seeds in cool water for forty-eight hours, drain the water well, and then place the seeds in a paper towel inside a plastic bag, and freeze in your freezer for 12-20 weeks. Remove from the freezer and sow.
Warm stratification works exactly as cold stratification, except instead of placing in the freezer for 12-20 weeks, lay in a warm location of approximately 72 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit.
How To Plant a Tree Seedling
Treat a tree seedling the same way you would a young tree sapling, with a few exceptions.
Seedlings are more delicate, so best to choose a mild and cloudy day to plant.
An easier way to plant a seedling is with a planting bar, also known as a dibble bar, rather than to dig a planting hole. Wedge your spade into the soil, and rock it backward to create a triangular hole. One side of the hole will be more vertical (where your dibble first rammed straight down into the soil. The other side will have a slant.
Place your tree seedling into the hole next to the straight side. Take your planting bar or spade and wedge it into the ground, next to the slanted side of the hole. Rock it towards the seedling, which will move the soil back into the gap. Many arborists use this method to plant lots of seedlings with less time and effort efficiently.
That’s a complete guide on how to plant a tree. Enjoy your beautiful new tree, and think of the many years of enjoyment this tree will provide for you, your family and generations to come.
Imagine, if we all planted a tree for each year of our life, what a more wonderful world it would be! Make it a fruit or nut tree and you’ll be creating a wonderful edible foodscape or edible landscape.
You can see our article and video here on planting fuyu persimmon trees. These are one of our favorite fruits and fruit trees.
Wishing you many trees and fruits to come!
We are an online gardening publication sharing all things garden related! Including urban farming, family gardening, homesteading, gardening for profits, and more. We’re all about growth!