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How to Plant a Tree

A tree that lives 200 years in the forest has an average urban life span of only 20 years. - Cass Turnbull


Step 1: Find the Perfect Spot

It's important to plant the right tree in the right place. Before you pick and buy a tree, try standing in your planned planting spot and think about these factors.

Utilities

It's not the best idea to plant a tree under electrical lines. Cities usually require that any trees around these types of lines must have maximum heights of 25 to 30 feet.

Find out where your underground utilities are. Tree roots can cause costly damage to sewage and water lines. You can usually have the city send out someone to locate these for you.

Things like fire hydrants and road signs should also be factored into your planting spot. Tree branches can easily overgrow important road signage.

Root Space & Soil Quality

Make sure your tree will have the appropriate root space. Narrow sidewalk planting strips under five feet are too small for most trees. If this is your situation, it's usually better to plant the tree in your yard on the other side of the walkway.

Check out your soil quality and find out how fast it drains. Compacted clay soils are very common in urban planting areas. Try digging a 10" deep hole and fill it with water. Check to see how much the water has drained in 10 hours. If it drains less than one inch per hour, your soil is too slow draining for most trees. Many trees will drown and die within two years in poorly draining soils.

If you do have soil that is clay, compacted, and poor draining you will most likely want to plant in a different site. Here are some other solutions:

  1. Amend a very large rooting zone by working a lot of organic matter into the top 12" of the soil.

  2. Bring in high quality soil and build a large planting mound.

  3. Set the tree higher than normal in the planting hole.

  4. Do not work clay or saturated soils when planting, as this will destroy the soil structure.

  5. Install positive drainage in the root-zone, if you are planting in a continuous planting strip. This would be like a "perf" pipe or a drain tile in gravel connected to a storm drain.

  6. Plant a tree that is water tolerant like a Pin Oak or Red Maple.

Walks, Driveways, Windows, Cars

You'll need to imagine what your tree will look like fully grown. Trees that are planted close to sidewalks and structures need to meet special requirements. A wide spreading tree is not well suited for a narrow planting strip between a street and a sidewalk. Trucks and cars will hit the tree branches as they drive past and pedestrians will have to dodge branches growing over the sidewalk. The best place for a large, wide tree is usually in the middle of your yard.

Purpose

Is there a special purpose for the tree(s)? Are they going to be used for summer shade, or as a windbreaker in the winter? Big, deciduous trees are great to plant on the south side of a house for shade. In fall those trees will shed their leaves and let in more light during the darker winter months. For winter windbreaks on the north side of a house, evergreen conifers do much better.

Future Care

How much care are wanting to put into your tree? Will it be partially protected, well-watered, and mulched? Will it need to be pruned? Trees planted by parking lots or industrial lots will need to handle more of a battering and drought than in other areas.


Step 2: Pick the Perfect Tree

After you've locked down a good spot to plant your tree, it is time to pick out the perfect tree. It's best to shop at reputable nurseries and ask your local nursery-person for help. Be cautious of bargains as those trees might not be the healthiest.

Trunks

Make sure the tree has a strong trunk with good tapering. The tree you pick needs to be able to stand up without any stakes supporting it.

Take a look at the trunk bark. Wounds and abrasions weaken the tree. Pick a tree that is free of these and make sure to look under tree wraps, as these sometimes hide wounds.

Roots

You'll want to make sure your new tree has a healthy root system. Make sure your tree has a one foot diameter of rootball for each inch of trunk diameter. Large trees in small pots will be much weaker plants.

Make sure there are no kinked or girdling roots. This can be harder to see since these are often hidden deep within the rootball.

Species

It's best to do some research before buying a tree. Rule out any trees with bad reputations or that are invasive. You'll want to avoid any trees that are known for shedding, dropping limbs, raising sidewalks, and are susceptible to pests and diseases. Make sure to take into account the climate and area you live in. Trees that are great in some regions may not be suitable to yours.


Step 3: Start Digging

Digging

Your hole should be no deeper than the rootball on your tree. If it is deeper, the tree may sink and settle later on. Dig and loosen the surrounding soil to widen the hole outwards. Each inch you expand the hole outward will increase the probability of the tree's survival, especially if your soil is less than optimal. You'll want to make sure you at least have space to spread the roots of the tree.