Trees are nature’s best and most efficient carbon capture technology, and they’ve been doing it for millennia. As such, adding more native trees anywhere can help reduce the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change.
And while a few leafy additions to your backyard won’t change the world by themselves, every little bit of help given to the environment is a good thing. Plus, the benefits of planting shade, fruit, or artistically beautiful foliage around your home can really add up.
But, if you’ve been hesitant to give it a try, or have failed to have your efforts take root in the past, no need to be discouraged. The following tree planting steps and tips will help ensure that your saplings won’t suffer from the ‘deadly don’ts’ that most commonly kill new plantings.
Tree Planting 101: Season, Location, and Type
Depending on where you live, the best time to plant any trees or shrubs can vary. However, a general rule of thumb is to plant in the fall, or as early as possible in the spring, in order to gain the maximum amount of time before summer.
So, if you’re planting trees this spring, as soon as the ground is thawed enough to dig the proper size hole (by hand), get your sapling in the ground. Many experts also suggest the fall conditions make the best time to plant but make sure to give your transplant time to get settled before cold, wetter weather sets in.
Step 1. Prepare the Planting Site—Place the Sapling ‘High’
Dig the hole for the tree or shrub at least 2-4 times as large as the root ball, in width. However, only dig the depth of the hole as deep as the root ball or a little less.
It’s important for the sapling to sit on undisturbed soil, so don’t dig too deep. You can safely place the sapling with about one-quarter of the ball above the ground level.
Because you’ll be disturbing the ground soil, over time, that area will “settle,” which will cause the planting to drop down further into the ground, but it’s critical to make certain the top of the root ball remains even with the soil around it, even after settling. So, allowing a bit of the root ball to sit slightly higher than the earth around it at first will allow it to settle to the proper depth.
Tip: Don’t haul away the dirt you displaced for the hole, you’ll need it to backfill the area.
Step 2. Break Up the Root Ball
Trees and shrubs that are sold often have tightly compacted roots that have taken the shape of the container. This is not good for proper expansion after being planted. In fact, one of the deadliest things that can happen is planting a root-bound tree.
To encourage your sapling’s roots to spread out, gently break up the root pattern. But, be careful, you don’t want to cause any severe stress.
Start at the bottom of the ball and loosely break up the soil and roots that have compacted together, using your fingers. You want to provide a way for the tree to naturally develop a healthy root pattern.
Many instructions say to go ahead and cut an “x” shape in the bottom of the ball and spread the roots out from there or to slice the roots vertically and even cut an inch of the ball off the bottom. However, this method should only be used if the roots are very densely compacted into a tight circle (or the shape of the container).
Unless you break up the roots, the pattern will continue and get worse once it’s planted. At best, the tree won’t reach its full potential, and at worst, it will slowly die.
Step 3. Backfill the Area: Amend the Soil
Many people mistakenly think that a sapling needs to be fertilized or ‘helped’ by soil amendments. This is a bad idea in the case of chemical fertilizers (which don’t help the planet during their production anyway). But, as far as amendments to the soil, such as compost or worm castings, this is okay in very small amounts.
You don’t want to make the disturbed area so nutrient-rich that the roots don’t spread out into a healthy pattern.
With that said, mixing in about 20% of worm castings or organic compost to the backfill soil (the soil removed from the hole) can help, but potting soil shouldn’t be used.
Backfill the hole about halfway, gently tamp down the soil, then soak the soil and let it rest for about 20 minutes before backfilling the rest. This will help eliminate air pockets, which could cause excessive problems during settling and foster disease.
You’ll want to mound up the dirt above the exposed area of the root ball, gradually tapering the soil to cover the roots in a downward slant from the trunk. This will provide the right sort of drainage and prevent the sapling from sitting in a pool of water, succumbing to root rot.
Tip: Consider adding an aggregate if the soil is too dense (won’t drain properly), or organic peat (such as sphagnum) to improve water retention. Remember: if you need to add a soil amendment, increase the diameter of the hole for the planting to encourage root expansion.
Step 4. Mulch the Tree
Mulch is a crucial addition to the soil, helping maintain healthy levels of moisture. Add two to three inches of good organic mulch material (such as shredded leaves, ground back, etc.) to cover the backfilled soil.
Keep the mulch about two inches away from the truck (it should not touch the bark), and spread it out about two feet farther than the disturbed circle of earth.
Step 5. Keep Watering
Now, there is such thing as too much water, but newly planted trees need a high amount of moisture to become established and this is the most important step after placing the tree in the new location.
This is the area where many new planters fail because there’s a delicate balance of keeping the soil moist, without drowning the tree. So, the best way to achieve this is by setting up a slow, deep irrigation system that will be in place for a few weeks to a few months, depending on the type of tree you’ve planted.
For example, larger trees that have lost their water gathering roots by being transplanted (you’ll know because their root balls are covered in a burlap sack), need extra attention.
Tip: Sprinkler systems or water hose blasting will not be as effective, and will often not work.
Roots must have time to absorb the moisture, and for that reason, a drip system is best.
Tip: If the hole is very large in diameter and the soil drainage is poor, too much watering can create a giant puddle, which is not good either.
Water the tree every day for about 8 days, then about every other day for the next 14. You can gradually taper off from that point, based on observations of the soil.
Tip: If the sapling loses leaves from brownness or drying, water more.
Tip: If the soil is soggy, reduce the water amount.
Soil should be moist, but not sopping wet.
The best way to achieve this is by using a drip system that slowly delivers water continuously. Simply lay the drip hose in a circular pattern around the new tree in rings. Keep the rings about 6-8 inches apart, and work outward from the trunk about two feet farther than the mulch. But, monitor the ground each day, to prevent overwatering and waste.
Benefits of Planting Trees: Offsetting Carbon Footprints, Food, & More
Trees are Mother Nature’s most efficient carbon capture technology. While scientists around the globe are working on man-made systems to remove carbon emissions from the atmosphere, trees are doing it effectively right now, making them a great way to help reduce your carbon footprint.
But, in addition to capturing emissions, trees provide aesthetic value, delicious and healthy food, and can do even more to reduce your impact on the planet. When planted by design, near your home, mature trees can reduce your energy bills. Shade trees help keep homes cooler in the summer, lowering your cooling costs and the carbon footprint of your household.
With so many benefits, now that you know exactly how to plant a tree properly, you can grab your shovel and get started… and rest assured that your saplings will thrive for many decades to come.