Chapter 6: Do the Right Thing: Planting Your Tree


Plant a tree. You found several here when you landed on this old earth and you've seen many cut down during your time. You probably cut down a few yourself. The children who are born after you've passed have a right to find a few trees standing. But they will not if every person who passes through this vale of tears cuts down a few and forgets to plant any. Plant a tree. Plant a dozen of them, and then you will have done something for the generations who follow you, even as someone did something for you ages ago. 
                                                        FORT LAUDERDALE HERALD


Do the Right Thing: Planting Your Tree

The simple act of planting a tree referred to in the title is pretty simple, as long as you've thought about the type of tree you're planting and the environment you're planting it in. Whether you're planning an enormous event or a weekend project around your home, you'll need to know how to get the trees into the ground.

Wherever you are, wherever you go, planting styles will differ. There is no one right way to plant a tree—there is only the method that works for you and the tree you've chosen. Let your planting research begin here, and follow up with further reading and planting experiences of your own. Ask a local urban forestry professional or a friendly nurseryman for a planting demonstration, which will confirm or alter what you've read here—based on your area's specific needs and requirements. New planting techniques may be discovered next week, so get on the mailing lists of national forestry groups such as the American Forestry Association and the National Arbor Day Foundation (see Resources). Don't be afraid to change your planting methods with new information. You and your planting supervisors will be leaders in the field!


TreePeople has developed a format for planting-supervisor training that works well. It may be more thorough than you would want for a single event, but if you need supervisors for a series of plantings, the effort pays off. We start with a onerous classroom session, reviewing basic tree biology, fundamentals of planting, and use of supplies, then end with a question-answer period. The instructor hands out a sheet that details and illustrates planting procedures. At the planting site, each new trainee is teamed up with a seasoned veteran for a lesson on how to work with unskilled volunteers and how to plant correctly. Thus, planting supervisors absorb the same information in three ways—by listening, reading, and getting hands-on experience.


For mine is the old belief. . . . There is a soul in every leaf. 

                                                                                      M. M. BALLOU



Tree-planting demonstrations are the best way to get trees planted correctly, so don't be shy about holding them at every event. It's a real shame to spend months or years organizing a planting only to have the trees planted poorly. Many people will tell you they've been planting for years, but an update never hurts.

On the planting day, after you've refreshed your planting supervisors' memories by going over the instructions or by planting a demonstration tree, deputize a handful of experienced supervisors to be quality-control agents, circulating among the planting teams and correcting faulty techniques. If you're planting massive numbers of seedlings over a large site, assign supervisors to pieces of turf and have them examine and approve or correct each planter's first results before giving them more trees. One-on-one supervision is a sure way to catch errors.

Some volunteers will find this attention to quality planting a nuisance; after all, they just wanted to come out and plant trees. Others will be grateful for the knowledge and attention you're giving them. Both groups will appreciate a demonstration that shows a commitment to care that begins before the trees go in the ground. Try to walk the line that makes both groups happy: provide instruction and stress the value of doing a good job, but keep the mood fun and light.

Make sure the person leading the class is someone who communicates enthusiastically and clearly. No amount of expert tree knowledge can make up for a boring or disorganized speaker. If you'll be cooperating with a government agency, this attention to quality and detail is vital; it's often the key issue of concern that agencies have about working with volunteers.


Dig a hole twice as wide and the same depth as the tree's container.

Center the tree in the hole. Test to see that the top of the root ball is level with the surrounding ground. Orient and straighten the tree.



1. Dig a hole twice as wide as the root ball and slightly shallower than the root ball. This technique puts the aerated backfill soil where the new roots will grow and leaves a base of naturally firm soil for the root ball to rest on, which won't settle when watered. Some cities may require that you use a root barrier to prevent roots from pushing up the sidewalk or a cage to keep gophers out. If this is the case in your city, the size and shape of the device will determine the dimensions of the hole.

2. Avoid the clay-pot syndrome. Roughen the sides and bottom of your planting hole with a pick or shovel so that root tips can penetrate the native soil. Smooth walls are like cement to root tips.

3. If you are using potted trees, be gentle but firm when removing the container. Making sure to protect the foliage, lay the tree on its side with the container end near the planting hole. Hit the bottom and sides of the container until the root ball is loosened. If the container is metal, use cutters to snip it from top to bottom.

4. Check the root ball for circling roots. If circling roots are left in place, they will continue to enlarge in that pattern after the tree has been planted. Gently separate them, shorten exceptionally long roots, and guide them downward or outward. If roots are severely circled or kinked near the trunk, get another plant. Remember that the tiny root tips that absorb water and minerals for the tree die off quickly when exposed to light and air, so don't waste time.

5. Don't cover the root crown with soil. If soil is added above the crown, which is the place where the roots end and the trunk begins, it will lead to rot at the base of the trunk. Aim to have the top of the root ball about to 1/2 to 1 inch above the surrounding soil surface, making sure not to cover it with soil unless roots are exposed. Check the height of the root crown by laying a straight piece of wood across the top of the hole. Adjust the height by lifting the tree out of the hole (lift it by the root ball, not by the trunk) and adjusting the soil level in the planting hole.

6. Orient the tree while you have the chance. If the tree has a preferred side, turn it toward a prominent viewpoint (such as your kitchen window). If it's lopsided, turn the side with more foliage toward the prevailing wind. This will encourage the other side to catch up. In sunny, arid climates, orient the tree so that the best-shaded side of the trunk faces southwest. Sunburn can kill the cambium, weakening the tree and disfiguring the trunk and bark. When turning the tree, lift it from the base of the root ball, not from the base of the trunk.

7. Sight it upright! Once the tree is in the hole, stand back and make sure it's standing upright. Tilt the root ball until the tree is straight, then backfill firmly under and around the root ball.

8. Give your soil a boost. Though the latest trend in tree planting is not to add amendment to the backfill soil, there are instances when it can be useful. If your native soil is hard to work with (heavy clay) or retains little moisture (very sandy), you can treat it to some organic amendment. The amendment won't be a permanent solution to soil deficiencies, but it will help retain water and air in the soil around the root ball for the first few vital years. If adding soil amendment, always mix it with soil from the planting site; about one part amendment to three parts native soil is a good proportion for backfill soil. Some professionals also recommend putting slow release fertilizer tablets in the hole at this time. See page 162 in the next chapter for more on fertilizing.

9. Tamp the soil as you backfill. Using the heel of your foot, press down firmly to collapse any large air pockets in the soil. This will help stabilize the tree in the hole. Don't wait until the planting is finished; press down every few shovels of soil. Yes, you can tamp too much; excessive pressure (especially in clay soils) will reduce the soil porosity, which is essential for healthy root growth. As usual with trees (and most living things), practice moderation.

10. Get it wet! Build a temporary watering basin around the root hall to encourage water penetration. A tree that has a dry root ball can stand in a moist backfill without absorbing water! Water thoroughly after planting. See page 156 for more on watering basins.


Trees outstrip most people in the extent and depth of their work for the public good. 
                                                                               SARA EBENRECK
                                                                                   American Forests


Backfill soil around root ball and tamp with your foot.
Build basin tightly around root ball to direct water.

Fill several times to water deeply. Widen basin to include whole planting area after a month.

Provide two stakes per tree. Use non-abrasive ties in figure-eight pattern.


11. Stake well! Remove the square wooden nursery stake after planting. Stake the tree loosely for protection or support if needed. If the stem can't stand up on its own, stake it so that it stands upright. Plan to remove stakes as soon as the tree can support itself, in six to twelve months. See page 161 for more information on staking.

12. Mulch till you drop! Cover the entire planting area, except a small circle at the base of the trunk, to a depth of 2 to 4 inches with bark, wood chips, old sawdust, pine needles, leaves, or gravel. Mulch keeps the topsoil temperate for root growth, reduces surface evaporation of water, provides nutrients to feed the tree, and slows weed and grass growth around the tree's base. For plantings along a street or sidewalk, concrete or decomposed granite will act as mulch, but you must allow an open area for air and water exchange (see pages 148-149).


Tree-Container-Size Comparison


Sizes are approximate. Trees vary according to species and variety.

seedling in tube

one-gallon container

five-gallon container

fifteen-gallon container or one-inch caliper ball and burlap

twenty-four-inch box or two-inch caliper ball and burlap



Your choice of tree size will most likely be obvious according to the site you've chosen. A rule of thumb is that the smaller the tree is when planted, the sooner it becomes established and resumes vigorous growth. The more time a tree spends in a container, the more confined the roots become. The tree will grow slowly and its ability to establish itself in a new environment will be diminished.

Cities vary widely in minimum-size requirements for street trees, ranging from 5-gallon saplings to 24-inch box trees over 2 inches in trunk diameter.


This is a general guideline for working with seeds. As simple as seeds are, working with them is often more complex than working with established trees. You will need to consult local nursery experts to get specific guidance on the best ways to grow trees from seeds in your area.


  • Large-scale sowings are possible in one day.
  • Cost is low.
  • Only the fittest trees survive initial growth phase.
  • They promote deep root systems and are not potbound.
  • No transplant shock occurs.
  • Planting area is covered with plants quickly.
  • Trees are established at site as soon as roots develop.
  • No staking is required.


  • Local collecting
  • Nurseries
  • Seed catalogs
  • Fresh fruit and nuts

Best time to plant

  • Spring or early summer for frost-tender seedlings
  • Year-round if provided with water and care or if grown in a container for transplanting
  • Some seeds germinate only after exposure to cold or certain chemicals

General planting procedure

  • Select or collect the biggest, plumpest seeds of the species from attractive trees.
  • Prepare the seeds for germination as per the instructions for your species.
  • Germination requirements can differ greatly. (See Resources for further information. )
  • Place seeds in container of soil or directly in ground. Depending on germination rate, the number of seeds per hole will vary.
  • Cover with depth of soil twice as thick as diameter of seed.
  • Keep soil moist until seed sprouts. (Winter or spring rains may do the job.)
  • Protect planted seeds from animals, humans, and frost. This step may entail placing a small mesh tent above or below ground level in soil to protect the seed and its roots, first shoots, and leaves.
  • Mulch around seedlings to control weeds.


  • Seeds are not suited to many urban landscapes.
  • Landscape effect is not immediate after planting.
  • Not all species can be grown successfully from seed.
  • Characteristics of the tree may vary from seed to seed.
  • Some pregermination treatments are difficult.
  • Some seeds and seedlings are lost because of animal and insect damage, harsh conditions, and disease.
  • Most food-producing trees must be grafted if grown from seed to produce reliable fruit characteristics.


Seedlings (potted and bare-root)


  • They eliminate uncertainty of germination.
  • They are easy to transport to planting site.
  • Large-scale plantings are practical.
  • Most of tree's growth occurs in planting-site environment (less transplant shock than container trees)
  • They usually do not require staking.
  • Cost is moderate.


  • Neighbor's volunteer trees (trees that sprout without being planted)
  • Nurseries
  • Growers (for large quantities)
  • County fire department, forester, or fire warden
  • State forester or department of forestry
  • Other forestry or conservation groups

Best time to plant

  • Late fall or early spring, for the highest possible level of soil moisture. It will wake up in spring and begin growing at the optimum time, as long as species is hardy to winter conditions.
  • Year-round, weather permitting, if it is watered and cared for.
  • Bare-root seedlings must be transplanted when dormant.

General planting procedure

  • Leave seedlings in container or planting bag in the shade until ready to plant. Work quickly once roots are exposed to air and sunlight. A little exposure can be enough to kill a bare-root seedling before it even
  • gets started.
  • Clear an area 3 to 4 feet in diameter, to mineral soil.
  • Use your body to shade the planting hole by placing your back to the sun.

  • In dry climates, you can pretreat the roots with a moisture-attracting agent.
  • Dig or pull a hole a few inches deeper than the root system.
  • Hold the seedling so that the root crown is at soil level, and make sure that all the roots are pointing down.
  • Measure the depth of soil in the container (the root ball).
  • Dig a hole twice as wide and the same depth as the root ball.
  • Remove container.
  • Place seedling in hole.



  • Seedlings are vulnerable to animal browsing and to foot traffic from animals and humans.
  • Seedlings may need monthly watering through the second year to help them become established and increase their growth and survival rate.

Planting Methods

These methods are general. The best techniques will be altered slightly for each species. Consult landscape professionals, enlist the help of local tree groups, confer with city or county trees planting staff, or refer to written materials listed at the back of this book and at your library.

Potted and bare root 

  • Fill hole halfway with soil.
  • Tamp soil to eliminate air pockets.
  • Fill remaining hole and tamp soil.
  • Form a watering basin around the seedling.
  • Slowly fill basin with 3 to 5 gallons of water.
  • Mulch inside watering basin.
  • For bare-root seedlings, wait for leaves to appear before watering again (but keep soil moist if in a dry climate).
  • Water thoroughly.


Larger bare-root trees


  • Roots grow in native soil; there are no pot-bound roots.
  • Tree becomes adjusted to local conditions sooner than container-grown trees.
  • They are easy to handle.
  • They usually do not require staking.
  • Cost is low to medium.


  • Mail-order nurseries
  • Retail nurseries
  • Wholesale growers

 Best time to plantBest time to plant

Late fall and winter or early spring—during dormancy, before the tree begins to leaf out.

General planting procedures

  • Dig a hole large enough to accommodate full root length.
  • Make a pile of soil in the middle of the hole so that the root crown will settle at grade level.
  • Spread roots over the pile of soil.
  • Back fill soil; work in and tamp around roots.
  • Water and let the soil settle.
  • Readjust tree so that top of root ball is at grade or slightly above ground level.
  • Fill rest of hole and tamp soil.
  • Soak the tree with water.
  • Mulch inside watering basin.
  • Soak bare roots overnight.
  • Cut any broken roots back to healthy tissue.  


  • Only deciduous fruit and shade trees are sold in large bare-root form.
  • Water conservatively after planting until growth begins with warm weather.
  • Use trees with healthy, fresh roots. Some trees are slow to leaf out.


Balled and burlapped trees (B&B)


  • Sometimes less expensive than container stock
  • Better survival rate than bare-root stock
  • Same advantages as container stock


Retail and wholesale nurseries.

 Best time to plantBest time to plant

  • Dig and plant most species in spring.
  • Fall and winter are fine for warmer climates.

General planting procedures

  • Dig hole twice as wide as root ball.
  • Lift tree by root ball and center in planting hole.
  • Top of root ball should be 1 to 2 inches above surrounding soil.
  • Fill hole halfway with backfill soil (containing 20 to 30 percent organic soil amendment if needed to improve water retention).
  • Tamp soil.
  • Remove burlap down to backfill level, uncovering half the root ball.
  • Water backfill soil and root ball thoroughly.
  • Fill remaining hole with soil to grade level, tamping carefully.
  • Form watering basin around the hole and water again.
  • If needed, stake the tree against prevailing wind. Stake should be anchored in soil beneath planting hole.
  • Tie tree to stake loosely.
  • Mulch inside watering basin.
  • Water root ball thoroughly.


  • Plants are hard to handle due to weight of root ball.
  • Circling roots can be a problem (usually near trunk at soil surface).
  • Root ball can shatter if not handled carefully.
  • Root ball can dry out if its soil is different than native soil.


Container trees


  • Large specimens make an instant visual effect.
  • Larger size protects trees from animals, vandalism, and mechanical injury.
  • They meet many city and county planting specifications.
  • Year-round planting is possible if ground isn't frozen.


Retail and wholesale nurseries

 Best time to plantBest time to plant

All seasons are fine, even winter if soil isn't frozen.

General planting procedures

  • Check for kinked or circling roots near trunk at soil surface.
  • Leave tree in container and protect from sun until ready to plant.
  • Dig a hole twice the diameter of and slightly shallower than the tree's root ball.
  • Roughen the sides and bottom of the planting hole.
  • Cut or loosen container and gently remove it.
  • Massage outside of root ball to loosen roots; cut tangled roots if necessary.
  • Place tree in hole and orient.
  • Adjust soil level under tree until top of root ball is about 1 inch above grade.
  • Straighten tree.
  • Amend backfill soil if desired.
  • Fill hole around tree halfway with backfill soil.
  • Tamp soil to eliminate air pockets.
  • Fill remaining hole with soil up to grade level and tamp (top of root ball should be at grade or slightly higher).
  • Untie and remove nursery stake.
  • If the tree needs support or protection, place one stake on either side of it outside of root ball (8 to 10 inches from the trunk).
  • Secure tree to stake with nonabrasive ties.
  • Form a watering basin around root ball.
  • Fill basin three times with water.
  • Mulch inside watering basin.
  • Water root ball thoroughly.


  • Trees must adapt to new site conditions; they may grow slowly for a season.
  • For street trees, many cities have precise planting specifications, including a root-control barrier and large specimen size.
  • Large container trees are expensive.
  • Roots are often kinked and circling from years in various containers.


Planting Trees

In the mating of trees,

the pollen grain entering invisible

the doomed room of the winds, survives

the ghost of the old forest

that was here when we came. The ground

invites it, and it will not be gone.

I become the familiar of that ghost

and its ally, carrying in a bucket twenty trees smaller than weeds,

and I plant them along the way

of the departure of the ancient host.

I return to the ground its original music.

It will rise out of the horizon

of the grass, and over the heads

of the weeds, and it will rise over

the horizon of men's heads. As I age

in the world it will rise and spread,

and be for this place horizon

and orison, the voice of its winds.

I have made myself a dream to dream

of its rising, that has gentled my nights.

Let me desire and wish well the life

these trees may live when I

no longer rise in the mornings

to be pleased by the green of them

shining, and their shadows on the ground,

and the sound of the wind in them.

Wendell Berry



Staking trees can do as much harm as good. You'll come across hundreds of different opinions on how to stake your tree. The following gives you some basic rules to follow.

Why Stake?

Trees develop strong trunks by swaying in the wind; however, many nursery grown trees are unable to stand upright without some support. Trees develop a slender, weak stem with little or no taper as a result of common nursery practices such as crowding, rigid staking, and removing side branches along the trunk. These trees will come from the nursery with a wooden stake attached tightly to the trunk with plastic tape. Remove this stake after planting, as soon as you are prepared to tie it to the new stake or stakes.

Where and How to Stake

A tree should be staked if the trunk is not strong enough to support the branches and leaves, or if it needs protection from intentional or accidental damage. Check the tree each month during the growing season and remove the stake if it's ready to support itself.

The appropriate stake size and material depends on the site. Wooden stakes 2 inches in diameter are fine for most conditions though some cities require 2-inch metal pipe or 3/4-inch rebar for street trees to protect them against vandalism. Install the stakes in pairs on opposite sides of the root ball. On city streets, you can position the stakes either in line with the curb or at right angles to it. Each city has its own rules.

If possible, stake to protect the tree from whatever local elements may harm it, such as strong prevailing winds or heavy foot traffic. For windy areas, arrange the stakes so that a line between them is perpendicular (at right angles) to wind direction. Stake height should be a few inches above the height of the ties, just high enough to keep the tree upright.

Tree-Tie Placement

Attach ties first to the stakes and then around the main trunk. A simple guideline is to attach both ties to the main trunk at the same level—the lowest level that will keep the tree upright. More specifically, ties should be as low on the trunk as possible but high enough that the tree will return to an upright position after it's bent over.

To find the proper height, hold the trunk in one hand, pull the top to one side, and release. Six inches above the height at which the bent-over trunk will return to upright when the top is released is the best tying height. Ties are normally connected between the tree and stake in a figure-eight pattern, with the tie nailed or wired to the stake at the appropriate height. The figure eight protects the trunk from coming in contact with the stake material.

Tree-Tie Materials

Tree ties are made of a number of nonabrasive, non-binding materials, such as plastic tape, vinyl, webbing, or pieces of tire (often with wire attached to the ends). Whatever you use, its point of contact with the tree should be a broad surface to minimize rubbing or girdling (cutting into the expanding trunk).


Hillside berm. To prevent water from washing down slope, build wall on lower side of slope to hold water up around root ball.


Watering Basins

Watering basins are especially important for newly planted trees in climates where rainfall is inadequate. As you dig the planting hole, set aside clods of soil to use later in making a 3-to-4-inch high berm, or wall, for the basin. For seedlings, bare-root, and small container trees, a wide (3-foot-diameter) basin is appropriate to contain water in the backfill area. Watering basins are also built for catching runoff on steep slopes. To make a hillside berm, form a U-shaped, or boomerang, berm on the downhill side of the tree.

Container trees have special watering needs, because the soil in the container is compacted and can reject water. Watering basins for newly planted container trees should be temporarily constructed tightly around the edge of the root-ball area to force water into it and keep the roots moist. After a month or two the watering basin should be widened to supply water to the whole planting area. Another idea is to build a regular 3-foot-diameter basin and add a temporary inner berm around the edge of the root ball. After planting, water the inner basin weekly and the outer basin monthly. After one to two months, remove the inner berm.

Root-Control Barriers

Root control barriers are required for plantings on city streets in several California cities, and much controversy exists over their effectiveness. They are designed to protect hardscapes (paved areas) by directing root systems down and away from the soil surface. Root barriers come in many forms, from round cylinders that encircle roots and direct them downward to herbicide strips that guard the sidewalk curbs. Root-control treatments are fairly new, so no conclusive results are available as to how mature trees will respond in the coming years.


Plant a tree. Do it! 
                                                              TOM CRUISE
                                                       EARTH DAY 1990



The trunk and branches of a tree contain its plumbing system and give it structure above ground. The bark protects the tree from injury and disease.

If you could picture a tree without its bark, you would see a sheet of cells as a cloak wrapped around the wood. This layer of cells is called the cambium, which produces a new layer of woody tissue each year. The cambium cells divide to make the trunk, branches, and roots grow thicker.

Next to the cambium, toward the interior of the tree, are water-conducting vessels called xylem (zi-lem). One year's growth of xylem is known as an annual ring, and it is the youngest layer of wood. Young xylem cells transport water with dissolved mineral nutrients from the roots to the leaves. As the cells age and are replaced by newer vessels, they become inactive and get clogged with wastes and resins, and their walls become rigid. The core of inactive xylem cells in the middle of the tree is called heartwood.

Between the rough outer bark and the cambium is a thin layer of food-conducting vessels called phloem (flo-em). Phloem tissue transports sugar manufactured in the leaves (and other organic compounds) to areas where materials are needed to produce new growth or to storage areas for future use.

Have a Good Time

Keeping all of this valuable instruction in mind, the best way to learn about tree planting is to get out there and do it. There are plenty of books to read, but there's no substitute for the real thing. We hope all this how-to information has got you itching to dig a hole; it may not be the perfect planting hole the first time, but you'll get a feel for it after a couple of tries. Trees are forgiving: they'll probably survive in spite of your attempts to do everything perfectly! A final word about planting: tree care begins before your spade hits the turf. The care you take in choosing a healthy tree and planting with its needs in mind will be reflected in the tree's health as it grows. The next chapter describes the tree-care journey you'll embark upon when your planting is behind you.



Copyright 1990 by TreePeople with Andy and Katie Lipkis

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, except as may be expressly permitted by the 1976 Copyright Act or in writing by the publisher.