The proverb, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time to plant is now,” leaves out the importance of planting that tree correctly! It also doesn’t mention that trees planted incorrectly do not live very long and can cause a lot of problems in the landscape.

Best Time to Plant

According to the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), spring and fall are the best seasons to plant a tree. The good news is that over the years, tree planting instructions have gotten much simpler. Research from Washington State University shows it’s not necessary to add soil amendments to the planting hole. To plant a tree, just dig, plant, and add mulch!

Before You Dig

Before you dig a hole for your tree, consult your local utility district to determine if underground power lines exist below your property. In the U.S. you can dial 8-1-1 to be connected.

Also, find out where the irrigation lines run underneath where you plan to dig. Check landscape plans to locate water lines. If you don’t have access to this information, dig slowly and cautiously.

Planting Instructions


1.  Dig a hole

Dig a hole at least 2 times the width of your container and about the same depth as the container. With your shovel, score the sides of the hole so the roots can easily grow through it.

2. Remove the Tree Stake

Remove the tree stake. In most cases it’s not necessary to replace it with a new stake, however, there are times when a light, temporary stake is necessary. Read Tree Staking to help you decide if you need to stake your tree.

3. Transplant

To transplant, gently remove the plant from its container and examine the root ball (the area of soil and roots). If roots are circling the root ball, lightly tease them apart with your fingers. If the plant is root-bound and has a mass of roots that cannot be teased apart, take it back to the store and ask for a replacement. Rest the root ball on firm soil.

4. Plant

Pick up your plant up by the root ball and set it in the middle of the hole. Fill around the root ball with the original soil from the hole. Eliminate air-pockets by lightly packing the soil as you fill the hole. Make sure not to add soil over the top of the root ball, and make sure the top of the root ball is even with the surrounding soil (or slightly higher if you have clay soil or poorly drained soil by 2-3 inches).

5. Make a Basin

Landscape Gardening Planting and Watering A Tree Anne-of-Green-Gardens

Create a small basin of soil around the plant and fill it with water. Use enough water to thoroughly moisten the root ball. Keep the roots moist but not wet until the tree is established. For most trees that can take up to a year or longer.

6. Mulch

Mulch is a great way to suppress weeds and grass which compete with a newly planted tree for water and nutrients. If you haven’t heard about mulch and want to learn about the different types, read Mulch Mulch Mulch! The ISA recommends using a 2-4 inch layer of mulch 3 inches away from the base of the tree (mulch used at the base of the tree can hold excessive moisture and cause the bark to decay).

A Note About Lawn

If you decide to plant your tree in a lawn, you’ll need to choose a tree species that tolerates frequent irrigation, and one that does not shade out the lawn. Before planting, use a hoe to eliminate a 6 inch patch of grass wider than the planting hole.

After planting, prevent the lawn from competing with your tree for several years so the tree can become established. Never spray herbicides (they can be taken up by tree roots), or use string trimmers (they can damage the tree trunk) anywhere near the trunk. Hand pull weeds as they appear.

What’s Next?

Now that you’ve planted your tree, you can sit back, relax and take a break and read Tree Training and Pruning to find out next steps to keep your newly planted tree healthy. These tips are essential to ensuring your tree has a healthy future.

What About Drought?

This article on caring for trees during drought from Colorado Cooperative Extension has helpful information on how to care for trees during drought, including how and where to water. Remember, there are so many good reasons to plant a tree, even during a drought.

*sketches by E.J. Perry, photos by Holly Guenther

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