Lawn and Garden

Tree Planting Tips

Larry G. Campbell, WVU Extension Agent and Associate Professor

As the saying goes, “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” Trees provide benefits for decades and even generations to come. A tree that is properly selected and planted can enhance the environment and even add value to our homes. According to the online resource, National Tree Benefit Calculator, a 12 inch pin oak in a single family home setting can provide $112.00 worth of benefits each year.
These benefits include:
  • Increased property value ($38.22)
  • Storm water: $26.52 (979 gallons saved)
  • Electricity: $13.38 (176 kilowatts saved)
  • Natural Gas: $21.66 (reduced by 22 therms)
  • Air Quality: $7.44 (reduced sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter)
  • CO2: $4.51 (reduced atmospheric carbon by 601 lbs.)

In order to reap the benefits of trees, we must be careful to follow the proper steps for tree planting and care. These steps involve tree selection, proper planting, and follow-up care.

Tree Selection

The planting of a tree actually begins with tree selection. Following are some things to consider when choosing a tree.
  • Tree Function: Trees are often selected for aesthetics, shade and energy reduction, windbreak, privacy, food and shelter for birds and wildlife, and reduction of street noise and pollution.
  • Site Restrictions: The primary concern regarding the planting site is the ultimate mature height and spread of the selected tree. Many tree problems occur when the homeowner fails to place the right tree in the right place. A prime example is planting large trees under utility lines. These trees ultimately grow into overhead lines and must be regularly pruned to keep them clear of the lines. This results in extensive pruning wounds which often lead to disease and insect problems in the tree. Homeowners must select trees with a size that will fit into the planting space once the tree reaches its mature height.

Other site concerns include soil conditions, hardiness zone, sun exposure, and human activity. Most trees do best in full sunlight and this must be taken into consideration when planting the tree. Human activity can contribute to soil compaction around trees in high use traffic areas which may prove detrimental to the tree. Tree species with heavy seed or fruit drop may be a nuisance around areas of frequent human activity too.

  • Tree Form: Trees grow in a variety of forms such as vase, columnar, weeping, pyramidal, and spreading. Homeowners must select trees with a mature form that will ultimately complement the landscape.

Tree Planting

The best time to plant a tree is either early spring or fall when weather conditions are less stressful on the transplant. However, trees can be planted throughout the growing season if properly planted and if given the appropriate care after planting.

Following are recommended steps for successful tree planting:
  • Start with a well prepared and properly sized planting hole. It has been said, “better to put a $100 tree in a $200 hole that to put a $200 tree in a $100 hole.” With that in mind, dig the hole the same depth of the container or root ball. Dig the hole three to four times wider than the container for containerized plants and two to three times as wide as the root ball on balled and burlapped trees. For bare-root trees, dig a hole larger than the root mass and then turn the soil in a three foot diameter area around the tree to allow for good root growth.
  • Set the tree in the center of the hole. Containerized trees sometimes become root bound or have girdling roots. If this is the case, use a sharp knife to cut an X across the bottom of the root mass and then make four vertical cuts along the sides before planting. With balled and burlapped trees be sure to remove all rope and twine from the ball. Completely remove all vinyl or treated burlap from the root ball. Regular burlap can remain under the root ball, but pull it back and cut away loose material around the top.
    Make sure that the trunk flare at the base of the trunk (where roots spread at base of tree) is slightly above ground level. It is best to plant the tree a little high to allow for settling.
  • Make sure the tree is straight in the hole and then backfill the hole with the original soil. Tamp the soil in firmly around the roots and fill the hole until it is just below the trunk flare. Water the tree and add soil as settling occurs. Fertilizer should not be applied to young trees at the time of planting.
  • It is generally not recommended to stake trees for support at planting. Trees will develop a stronger trunk and root systems if not staked. However, protective staking may be necessary on sites where windy conditions or lawn mower damage is a concern.
  • Mulching is also an important step in tree planting. Mulch helps with moisture retention and reduces competition from grass and weeds. Two to four inches of mulch should be applied; however, keep the mulch several inches away from the base of the tree to avoid decay of the trunk.

Tree Care Follow-up

Trees must not be planted and then forgotten. Keep the soil around the tree moist but not soggy. They should be watered generously at least once a week during extended dry weather during the first year after planting.

Follow these tree planting tips and you and others will enjoy the benefits of trees for years to come. “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago,” (Warren Buffet).