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 Tree Planting- Part II: Planting and Maintaining Your Investment

Planting Your Tree
Part II of II

Eight tree-planting steps to ensure long life for your investment
Round Rock Leader 
Monday, December 22, 2003
By Emsud Horozovic, City of Round Rock Forestry Manager

The best time to plant new trees was 50 years ago. If you are not fortunate enough to have an old tree in your yard, the next best time to plant a tree is October through March to allow the roots to become established before the baking sun arrives.

Last month we introduced the topics of selecting a new tree, the best site and the most appropriate trees for this area. This month we will describe the proper methods of planting your tree so it has the best chance of survival.

Think of the tree you just purchased as a lifetime investment. In planting your tree, you don’t want to put a $100 tree in a $10 hole.

Before you begin to dig the hole for your tree, be sure you have located all underground utilities by calling 1-800-DIG-TESS.

When trees are planted they often exhibit what is known as transplant shock: this is indicated by slow growth and reduced vigor. Proper site preparation before and during planting, coupled with good follow-up care, will reduce the amount of time the plant experiences shock and will allow the tree to quickly establish in its new location.

Follow the steps below to significantly reduce the stress placed on your new tree.

  1. Dig a shallow, broad planting hole. Make the hole wide, as much as two-to-three times the diameter of the root ball, but only as deep as the root ball. It is important to make the hole wide because the tree roots on the newly establishing tree must push through surrounding soil in order to establish. Breaking up the soil in a large area around the tree provides the newly emerging hair-thin roots room to expand more quickly into loose soil. Make sure the sides of the hole are rough and uneven.
  2. Plant the tree at the proper planting height. Before placing the tree in the hole, check to see it has been dug to the proper depth and not any deeper. You will want the soil at the base of the tree to be at the same level on the trunk as it was in the container. If part of the trunk gets below ground, its bark may rot. Also, new roots will have difficulty developing due to a lack of oxygen. The majority of the roots on the newly planted tree will develop in the top 12 inches of soil. It is better to plant the tree a little high, 2 or 3 inches above the base of the trunk flare, than to plant it below the original growing level. This will allow for some settling (see diagram). To avoid damage when setting the tree in the hole, always lift the tree by the root ball and never by the trunk
  3. Straighten the tree in the hole. Before you begin backfilling have someone view the tree from several directions to confirm the tree is straight. Once you begin backfilling it is difficult to reposition.
  4. Fill the hole, gently but firmly. Fill the hole about one-third full and gently but firmly pack the soil around the base of the root ball. Then, if the tree is balled and burlapped, cut and remove the string and wire from around the trunk and top third of the root ball (see diagram). Be careful not to damage the trunk or roots in the process. If you are planting a container-grown tree, watch for circling roots. If the roots are circling, cut the roots in a few places to keep them from becoming girdling roots. If there are matted roots, make two to three vertical slices into the rootball with a sharp knife or loosen the roots carefully with your hands. Fill the remainder of the hole with the original soil, taking care to firmly pack the soil to eliminate air pockets that may cause roots to dry out. To avoid this problem, add the soil a few inches at a time and settle with water or pack gently with your foot. Do not press too firmly, only firm enough to hold the tree upright. Continue this process until the hole is filled and the tree is firmly planted. It is not recommended to apply fertilizer, compost or other material to the original soil unless you are planting in poor or rocky soil. Fertilizer can encourage crown growth, but there may not be enough roots to support the demand for water and nutrients the new growth will require. Also, fertilizer can burn the fine roots. Construct a small dam or berm (Round Rock donut shaped) 3 feet in diameter around the tree, or to the extent of the dripline. This dam will hold water until it soaks into the soil, instead of letting it run off.
  5. Mulch the base of the tree. Mulch is organic matter applied to the area surrounding the base of the tree. It acts as a blanket to hold moisture, moderates soil temperature extremes, provides a small amount of nutrients, and reduces competition from grass and weeds. Some good choices are leaf litter, pine straw, shredded bark, peat moss, wood chips, and ground hardwood. A 2-to-4 inch layer is ideal. More than 4 inches may cause a problem with oxygen and moisture levels. When placing mulch, care should be taken so that the actual trunk of the tree is not covered. This may cause decay of the living bark at the base of the tree. A mulch-free area, one to two inches away from the base of the tree, is sufficient to avoid moist bark conditions and prevent decay. Free mulch can be picked up at the Round Rock Brush Recycling Center, 310 Deepwood Drive. Mulch is free to Round Rock residents only.
  6.  Remove bamboo stakes, any labels and other tags that may have been placed on the tree. If the tree is grown and dug properly at the nursery, additional staking for support is not necessary. Trees will establish more quickly and develop stronger trunk and root systems if they are not staked at the time of planting. However, protective staking may be required on sites where mowing could cause damage, or vandalism or windy conditions are concerns. If staking is necessary for support, several stakes used in conjunction with a wide flexible tie material will hold the tree upright, provide flexibility, and minimize injury to the trunk (see diagram). Place stakes outside the planting hole in undisturbed soil. Remove support staking and ties after the first year of growth.
  7. Watering. Keep the soil moist but not soaked. Over watering will cause leaves to turn yellow or fall off and can drown the tree. Water trees at least once a week at the rate of 10 gallons per caliper inch, unless it has rained, and more frequently during hot weather. When the soil is dry below the surface of the mulch, it is time to water. If the mulch is moist, do not water. Water the area within the dripline. A soaker hose is ideal as it can water a greater area at one time and does not need to be moved as often. In Central Texas you should continue watering weekly during the winter if there is no rain. Continue watering your newly planted trees for two years in this manner.
  8. Pruning -- Don’t. The belief that trees should be pruned when planted to compensate for root loss is misguided. Trees need their leaves and shoot tips to provide food and the substances that stimulate new root production. Unpruned trees establish faster with a stronger root system than trees pruned at the time of planting.

Limit pruning of newly planted trees only to corrective pruning. Remove dead, broken and diseased branches, and save other pruning measures for the second or third year.After you've completed these eight simple steps, further routine care and favorable weather conditions will ensure that your new tree will grow and thrive. A valuable asset to any landscape, trees provide a long-lasting source of beauty and enjoyment for people of all ages. When questions arise about the care of your tree, be sure to consult your local ISA Certified Arborist, tree care or garden center professional for assistance.

Congratulations on planting your new tree!

I’d like to end this column with a quote from D. Elton Trueblood. “A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.” For more information visit the International Society of Arboriculture at

Forestry Manager Emsud Horozovic
Phone: 512-218-5540


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