tree planting shovel

Tree Planting Tips For Healthy Trees

Do you know what the biggest killer of newly-planted trees is?

Poor tree planting practices.

Here’s the best advice I can give you when it comes to planting a tree – “Plant a $5 tree in a $100 hole.”  That doesn’t mean buy a cheap tree or line the planting hole with gold. It means take your time and put in the effort to plant the tree properly. The hole and the planting technique are more important than the tree itself.


Choose the Right Time

Fall is one of the best times to plant trees in northern Virginia – usually mid-September through early November. The soil is warm to help trees get quickly established, there’s plenty of moisture and air temperatures are cooling down.

Spring is also a good time to plant (and when most people typically think about planting) although be careful to water well throughout the summer when temperatures soar.

Plant the Right Tree in the Right Place

Before you plant, make sure that you’ve chosen the best tree for your location. Consider exposure (sun vs shade), mature size, water and soil needs, proximity to buildings and overhead wires, and hardiness zone, as well as the overall look you’re going for. For more details, see our article here >>

Plant at the Right Depth

The one planting practice that causes more grief than any other is planting a tree too deeply. If in doubt, dig a more shallow hole; it’s better to have some of the root ball above ground than to have the trunk below ground.

Many people pull their new tree out of the container and plant it to the same depth as they found it – or even deeper. The problem is that many trees are planted way too deep in the container, usually to help improve stability while in the nursery or garden center (it doesn’t look good when trees keep falling out of their container).

So how do you know how deep the tree should really be planted?

Look for the trunk flare. That’s the area at the base of the trunk where it starts to get wider, just above the roots, and it needs to stay above ground when the tree is planted. You may have to pull back several inches of soil to uncover the trunk flare.

Use a measuring tape to measure from the trunk flare to the bottom of the root ball or container. That’s how deep you should dig the hole – do not dig any deeper!

If your tree is budded (meaning that a single bud of the desired cultivar is placed on the rootstock of a different cultivar and allowed to grow), you’ll see a swelling or slight crook in the trunk about 2″ to 3″ above the ground. When you plant, make sure that this is above the ground and fully visible.

Dig a Wide Hole

Tree roots need to be able to easily spread out into the surrounding soil to help stabilize the tree and take up water and nutrients.

To help them do that, the planting hole needs to be about 2 to 3 times wider than the container or root ball. 

Yes, it can be hard work be dig a hole that wide. But if it’s not wide enough, the roots have nowhere to go; they start growing around in circles instead of spreading out and eventually the tree falls over or dies.

Take It All Off

You may have heard that it’s okay to leave burlap wrapped around the root ball when you plant it but we recommend that you remove any burlap, wire basket and/or nylon rope before planting. While natural burlap may disintegrate over time, the wire basket and nylon rope definitely won’t. Instead, they’ll prevent the roots from spreading out, leading to an unstable and poorly developed tree.

If the tree is in a container, gently remove the container while disturbing the rootball as little as possible. Prune any roots that may be circling around the rootball.

Don’t Add Anything

There’s no need to provide the tree with new topsoil, potting mix, compost, manure or anything else. When you fill the planting hole, just use whatever came out of the hole when you dug it.

Press the soil down firmly to stabilize the tree but don’t stomp on it or compact it.

Water Well

Newly planted trees need a lot of water for at least the first year.

Don’t use an overhead sprinkler; instead, use drip irrigation or a garden hose running at a slow trickle and run the water for a couple of hours at a time to ensure that water gets down into the root zone.

To help keep water near the tree when you irrigate, build a small wall of soil around the planting hole.

Mulch Around the Tree

Spread a 2-3″ layer of mulch in a 3-4 foot circle around the tree to suppress weeds, retain moisture and prevent damage to the tree from mowers and string trimmers. Keep the mulch pulled away from the trunk and whatever you do, do not create a “mulch volcano”!

To Stake or Not to Stake

You’ve probably seen many newly-planted trees held up with stakes. And you may have wondered whether staking a tree is really necessary, what the best way is to stake a tree, how long a tree should be supported with stakes, what to use, and more.

The answer isn’t a simple “yes” or “no” – it’s more of an “it depends”. You’ll find all the details in our article on tree staking.

Wrapping Up

And, generally speaking, that’s it.  As with anything that’s been newly planted, keep an eye on your new tree for insect or disease problems (which are more common when the plant is stressed, like when it’s been transplanted) and make sure the soil isn’t settling or the roots popping up.

And, of course, if you have any questions give us a call. We’re always happy to discuss options for what to plant and where to plant it.

If you’re looking for recommendations of good trees to plant in the northern Virginia area, here are our top picks:

Best Trees For Fall Foliage Color

Best Spring-Flowering Trees

Best Fruit Trees

Best Trees for Small Spaces

In need of tree care services?

Give us a call at 571-244-3838 or request a quote online!