How you plant your tree will dictate whether it lives a long, healthy life or a short life plagued by insects and disease. Proper planting is the first and most important step toward growing happy trees.
Tree planting can be boiled down to three primary goals.
Goal 1: Choose the right species for the given location.
Before you do anything, take some time to evaluate the planting site conditions. Available sunlight, soil moisture, and soil pH levels are all important factors to consider when choosing a tree species.
In addition, space constraints are particularly important and perhaps the most overlooked site condition. You must evaluate the amount of available growing space for the roots and canopy. Do roots have room to grow without damaging hardscapes such as the driveway or sidewalk? Can the canopy expand without growing into power lines or rubbing against your house?
Once you have measured available space, choose a species that will fit comfortably within that space once the tree reaches full maturity.
Goal 2: Provide space where new roots can easily grow and thrive.
Newly planted trees need to quickly establish roots in the surrounding soil. Young roots are weak and cannot push into the hard clay of North Carolina. It is critical that the soil surrounding the root ball be loose and well-aerated. To accomplish this, dig the hole at least 1.5 times the width of the root ball, though 2 to 3 times is preferable.
Once the tree is situated in the planting hole, backfill the area with loose dirt free of large clumps. Compress the soil lightly, but not too much—the tender roots must be able to grow. Once the backfill is in place, do not walk in this area. The weight of your footsteps may overly compress the soil.
Goal 3: Avoid burying the root collar.
You must avoid burying the root collar at all costs. Otherwise you will debilitate the tree with health issues and possibly kill it. This is perhaps the most important component of proper planting.
The root collar is located at the base of the tree, where the trunk flares out into roots that disappear underground. You must make sure this is visible. If it is not, clear away the dirt by hand until you find it. If the tree is very small and there is no flare, then dig down to the first structural root.
Once this is done, measure the distance from the root collar to the bottom of the root ball. Take this measurement and subtract one to two inches for any tree less than 10 feet in height; subtract more for larger trees. The resulting number is how deep you must dig the planting hole.
Once you set your plant into the hole, the root collar will be above the surrounding ground. The tree will always settle an inch or two after planting, which means the root collar’s final resting point should be correctly at grade.
It’s said a stitch in time saves nine. This is certainly the case when it comes to planting trees. Improper planting leads to many tree health issues that cost time and money to correct, if they can be fixed at all. Proper planting is the beginning of a healthy, happy tree.
Featured photo by Basil Camu.
Basil Camu is co-owner of Leaf & Limb Tree Service, a tree care company based in Raleigh.