top of page

The What, When, and How of Tree Planting

Updated: Aug 12, 2020

Spring is only a month away, and since Blue Ox's favored planting window is late winter, we're already gearing up for all our planting projects. If you forgot to get on an arborist's planting schedule, or if you just don't want to spend the extra money to have a contractor do the work, don't worry—tree planting is easy! Especially with this comprehensive guide to the what, when, and how of container tree planting...


The first step to any planting project is to pick what you want to plant. A few things to consider when choosing an appropriate species are:

  1. Sun and wind: If your site location is sunny, be sure your chosen species loves the sun; if it's windy, be sure to pick a hardy durable species that won't be negatively affected.

  2. Drainage: Does the site location become swampy in the wet season? Is it at the top of a slope so all the rain washes away before it can permeate the soil? If so, you'll want to pick a species that thrives in such conditions.

  3. Soil Compaction: Will there be heavy traffic in or near the site location that might cause soil compaction? Tree roots struggle to breathe in such an environment.

  4. Room for Growth: If your chosen species is large at maturity, is there plenty of room both above and below ground for your tree to grow? Don't forget to consider overhead and buried utilities.

  5. Irrigation: How do you plan to water your tree until it's established? Will your hose reach the site location?

  6. Purpose: Are you looking for something flashy, something that can provide lots of shade to your yard, or maybe something that will create a privacy screen between you and your neighbor? If you've got a specific goal in mind for your tree you'll have to weigh that into the species decision.

  7. Current Landscaping: If you have a distinct landscaping style, you'll want to try to match the aesthetic so the tree doesn't look out of place.

If these considerations seem overwhelming, or you just don't know of very many tree species, any good nursery attendant should be able to help you come up with some species options to fit your needs. But there's more picking to do yet. Because once you know what species you want, it's important to find a quality specimen to increase your tree's chance of survival after planting. Here's what to look for when shopping at a nursery:

  1. Overall Health: It should be fairly obvious at first glance which trees have been watered correctly and well maintained. There are few if any dry, curling, or brown leaves, and few if any dead limbs (identified by a lack of leaves and/or brittle when bent).

  2. Trunk Damage: Tree bark should be uniform without blemishes, and the trunk should taper evenly from top to bottom.

  3. Dominant Lead: Trunks that split into two or more main leads have less structural integrity than those with a single dominant lead growing almost straight up and down.

  4. Rootball Health: Healthy roots are as important as (if not more important than) healthy limbs. Below are a number of signs you should check for before purchasing...

  • Make sure you can see the root flare above the soil.

  • Check for girdling roots around the trunk.

  • Check for circling roots that have been left to grow too long in a confined space by wiggling the tree in the container. If the tree wasn't kept in the right size container at the right time in it's life, the soil will shift in a circular, bullseye-like pattern, revealing the presence of circling roots.

  • Notice the trunk diameter versus the rootball diameter. A good rule of thumb is that a 15-gallon container should not house a tree with a trunk diameter larger than 1"; a 20-gallon container should not house a tree with a trunk diameter larger than 2"; and a 45-gallon container should not house a tree with a trunk diameter larger than 3".

The last point we want to make about picking the right tree is to seriously consider which size tree you want to buy. We know it's tempting to purchase the largest size you can get. It's much more gratifying to see a five-year-old tree in a newly planted site than it is to see a one-year-old tree there. But there are a number of reasons Blue Ox always recommends going with the smaller size tree:

  1. Establishment Period: Smaller trees are quicker to become established in a new location, meaning a shorter length of time caring for your young tree before it becomes (mostly) self-sufficient.

  2. Growth Rate: Smaller trees have a quicker rate of growth post-planting, so you'll see them shoot up in just the first year of planting as they thrive in their new site.

  3. Adaptability: Smaller trees are more adaptable, having a higher tolerance for new soil, soil compaction issues, and soil drainage issues.

  4. Cost: Smaller trees are less expensive, meaning your pocketbook will love you for the choice.

  5. Survival: And all these points add up to the fact that smaller trees have a higher-rate of survival, meaning you'll be less likely to potentially spend a couple hundred dollars on something that could end up dead within the year.


So you've selected your species, singled out your specimen, and you're ready to plant! Even though it can seem easier to entrust such an important undertaking to a professional, anyone can do it. Here's an easy-to-follow guide for proper planting:

  1. Call 811 to request that your buried utilities be marked out in advance of planting. Better to know where everything is located beneath the surface before you jump on a shovel!

  2. Always handle and move trees by the container and not by the trunk whenever possible. Lifting a tree by its trunk could cause harmful damage to the tree.

  3. Prep the planting site by digging a hole that's approximately 2-5 times the size of the rootball in width. So if your 15-gallon tree is in a container with a diameter of approximately 16", then your hole diameter should be anywhere from 32-80". The depth need only be enough to fit 90% of the height of the rootball, but remember that some of your container may be filled with just compost which does not need to be included in the hole, allowing you to leave your hole a little shallower than otherwise.

  4. Prep your tree by removing the soil from the top of the container so your root flare is fully visible, removing or cutting away the container, and cutting any roots circling the outside edge of the rootball. Don't be afraid of causing damage to the roots—they grow fast!

  5. Place your tree in the center of the hole, leveling the dirt beneath it as much as necessary until the trunk is standing straight up and down. The rootball should be above surface level, since your hole should only be deep enough to contain 90% of its height. This prevents roots from being planted too deep and aids in establishment, even if the rootball should settle.

  6. Instead of using displaced soil to fill in the edges of the hole around your rootball, use organic compost or rich top soil which will provide nutrients for your growing tree. Do not cover the rootball with leftover soil, which could cut it off from sufficient oxygen and/or rainwater. If you want to level out the rootball and its surroundings, use mulch to create a gentle slope, but don't pile too much of it on the rootball itself or around the trunk.

  7. Any sort of trunk wrapping should be removed. Stake your tree only if absolutely necessary and remove staking as soon as practical. If staking the trunk, use wide straps attached loosely around the trunk as low as possible.

  8. Finally, give your new tree a slow drench with the hose by setting it to trickle and leaving in near (but not on!) the trunk for approximately 60 minutes.


Now that your tree is safe and sound in the ground, it's time to talk about how to care for it. The first year after a tree is relocated to a new site is a crucial time. It's during this establishment period that your tree is most at risk of becoming nothing more than a fresh hole in the ground (and in your wallet). The main cause of a new tree's failure to survive a planting? Watering. We're talking both under-watering and over-watering.

Most new tree-caretakers want a watering routine they can put on their calendar—a set-it-and-forget-it sort of solution. But trees don't live and grow according to anyone's schedule. The best way to know if your tree needs water or not is to excavate the soil near your tree's trunk about an inch deep (just dig a tiny hole with your finger). If the soil an inch below the surface is wet, don't water. If it's dry, do. It's that simple!

The slow drench method as described in step 8 of Planting is the best way to water your tree. You'll probably only need to slow drench 1-2 times a week depending on temperature and rainfall, but always make sure to check the soil before watering and never water your tree directly on the trunk.

In the heat of summer, it may be advisable to add mulch around your tree to help retain moisture. To do so, spread mulch in a ring with a diameter in feet to match the diameter in inches of your tree's trunk (1" trunk = 1' ring). The depth of the mulch should not exceed 1-2" and it should be kept away from the base of the trunk by 1-2".

Aside from watering and mulching, no other care is necessary in the first year. If you're really nervous about beetles and other pests, you can call an arborist for a preventative treatment, but refrain from pruning on your new tree for at least the first year, if not the first two.

If you follow this guide, we feel certain you and your tree will have an easy transition. Here's to happy planting, and we hope to see all your new trees in a few years when they're ready for pruning!

82 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page