EASY AS 1, 2, 3-15
Proper tree-planting techniques ensure successful growth

April 01, 2010

by Helen Boatman,
Victoria County Master Gardener

edited by Charla Borchers Leon,
Victoria County Master Gardener
Gardeners' Dirt
Victoria County
Master Gardener Association
This live oak tree exists in an undesirable site and is growing under existing power lines.  It has become deformed due to severe pruning to ward against damage from wind storms.
Earlier this year, Joe Janak, Victoria County extension agent-Ag/NR, presented a session on the proper planting of containerized landscape plants, shrubs and trees, at a Lunch and Learn with the Masters training session.

It was so well received that we felt it should be repeated in print, especially since containerized trees/shrubs can be planted any time of the year. He pointed out 15 steps for the proper planting of any containerized trees, shrubs and related plants.


1.Call 811. Make sure there are no buried utility lines in the area you want to prepare for planting. Calling 811 will alert a utility company to come out and survey for buried lines.

2.Look up for wires.
You certainly do not want to plant a tree you have selected under utility wires. There's no doubt future problems in planting a tree that will be 50- to 60-feet tall at maturity, planted under lines only 20- to 30-feet high. Be sure you have selected the right plant for the right place.

3. Look down and around to plan for root growth.
Look at the proximity to buildings and other shrubs/trees. Think about how that small plant's roots and top will grow when it is mature. Will the root and top growth be crowded with other plants? Will it also be a beautiful addition to your landscape, or something that needs to be moved later because it is unsightly, or worse, detrimental to the building?


4. Inspect the root ball. In the root ball or container, find the top-most root to determine planting depth. The point where the top-most root meets the trunk should be planted level or slightly above the normal soil level and should not be more that 2-inches deep in the root ball. Excess soil above the top-most root should be removed so that that the root flare is visible.

5. Inspect the root system. Pull the root ball out of the container. Look for defects, such as circling roots, which should be cut. Cut or tear up the edge of the root ball to assist in spreading the roots out and stop root girdling.

6. Dig a shallow, wide hole.
Measure the distance between the top-most root and the bottom of the plant's root ball. Dig the hole to only 90 to 95 percent of this depth. The planting hole's width should be at least two times the diameter of the root ball.

7. Place the tree/plant in the hole.
Handle by the root ball, not by the trunk. Don't put fertilizer, compost, etc., in the hole at planting.


8. Position the tree/plant. The top-most root (and the root ball) should be placed so it is 1 to 2 inches above the landscape soil. If the hole is too deep, carefully remove the plant, and add soil beneath it. The biggest mistake we make is planting too deep.

9. Straighten the plant. Look at it from two perpendicular directions to be sure it isn't leaning.

10. Remove synthetic materials.
Burlap should be removed from the bottom of the trunk and the top of the root ball. The rest will eventually biodegrade. Synthetic burlap (plastic) and synthetic twine must be removed with a sharp knife. It will not biodegrade, and can cause serious damage to your tree.

11. Add backfill soil and firm the root ball.
Take the shovel and slice into the soil at the edge of the hole to enlarge it, pushing this soil against the root ball and moderately pack down. Water the backfill to settle the soil and release any air in the hole. About 2 inches of the root ball should remain above ground after all the backfill soil is added. This ensures the top-most of the root remains above ground, even if the root ball settles.

12. Add berm/mulch.
If desired for watering, a 3- to 4-inch berm can be constructed at the edge of the root ball to prevent water running off. Apply a thin 1-inch layer of mulch over the root ball, but keep it several inches away from the trunk. Apply a 3-inch layer of mulch to the berm and to at least an 8-foot diameter circle around the tree.

Besides helping the new tree absorb water, the mulch keeps turf grass away from the trunk and reduces competition. Turf grass should never be allowed to grow up to the trunk of a young tree/plant. When this does happen, the tree often performs poorly.

Also, never pile mulch in a volcano-like manner against the trunk. This can rot the trunk, cut off oxygen to the roots, keep vital irrigation and rainwater out, or can keep roots too wet in poorly-drained soils.


13. Stake and prune if needed.
If you feel you must stake the tree, use biodegradable materials, such as wood stakes and heavy natural twine that will eventually rot away. Metal posts and wire can cut into the tree. Remove all within one year. Prune to shape if needed.

14. Don't fertilize at planting.
This can injure or even kill a newly-planted tree. Fertilize after several months if the plant has at least 6- to 12-inches of growth.

15. Water frequently.
Without rainfall, irrigate two to three times weekly until established with 1 to 2 gallons per inch of trunk caliper on the root ball. Adjust to keep soil slightly moist but not wet.

Remember, irrigation frequency is more important than irrigation volume.

By following these planting steps, you will have a high success rate and reap the benefits for many years with healthy growth and beautifully placed landscape tree/plant specimens
Purchased as a container tree, this elm was planted with encircling roots not cut.  The 9-inch trunk tree was only supported by a two inch base;  the remainder was pinched off by roots circling the trunk.  No wonder it just fell over.
For a digital presentation of planting trees properly visit: