Tree Facts: How to plant a tree

Farm Forum

Many of you may be wondering how to plant a tree so I thought it might be a good time to review proper planting techniques. It is better to plant trees in the spring or fall. Do not plant in late spring or summer because the heat will stress the tree and may cause it to die.

Preparations need to be made for the site and the tree before planting. When selecting a site, keep in mind that tall trees should not be planted under power lines or too close to buildings. Choose a tree species that is adapted to area, usually native species are best. Before digging call South Dakota One Call at 811 or 800-781-7474 to locate any vulnerable utilities.

Dig a wide shallow hole about as deep as and three times the width of the root ball. Loosen the sides of the hole to allow for root penetration. When deciding on the depth tree, use the first major root as a guide. Plan to make sure it is placed just below the ground surface. Remove the root ball from container and carefully cut any encircling roots. It is possible for these encircling roots to cause trees to die from choking the trunk. Cutting these at planting time will cause them to grow outward. Also, remove any baskets, burlap as possible if planting a balled and burlap tree. Do not leave the roots exposed to the sun and air too long or they can dry out and be damaged.

When planting the tree, place it in the hole and backfill with loosened native soil. Do not add anything to the planting hole for shade trees except what was dug out of the hole. Adding soil amendments such as peat moss, compost or gypsum can actually backfire on you causing the roots to concentrate and not spread out beyond the hole and failure can result. Fruit trees are an exception to this, you may add soil amendments but they should not exceed one third of the backfill.

Mulch the area around the tree with 2-3 inches of woodchips or shredded bark mulch. Do not place mulch right up to the trunk of the tree as diseases can start there. Mulch provides many benefits including keeping the soil moist and moderating soil temperatures, keeping them cool in the summer and warmer in the winter. Having a mulched area around trees makes mowing too close and weed whipping unnecessary, both of which can cause tree injury.

Plan to water the transplanted tree once per week or so. A rule of thumb is to provide 10 gallons per diameter inch of the trunk measured a foot above the ground. In order to form deep roots, water deeply. A long slow trickle of water will water more deeply than a quick sprinkling. Allow the ground to dry out between watering. This should be done the first five growing seasons.

If the tree is located in a windy location it should be staked loosely. However, it still needs to be able to move around with the wind. Never stake a tree so that it cannot move in the wind. Research has shown that when a tree sways in the wind it builds a stronger trunk. Plan to remove the stakes once the roots have a chance to become established after the first growing season.

Resist the urge to fertilize or prune your tree for two of three years, so it has time to grow healthy roots. If fertilizer is applied earlier than that the tree will be caused to grow foliage at the expense of the roots. Do not prune the tree except for broken or diseased branches. It needs as much leaf surface it can get to grow and adapt to its new site.

My sources for this news release were the South Dakota and North Dakota Cooperative Extension Services. If you would like more information about “How to Plant a Tree,” contact Bob Drown @605-244-5222 Extension 109 or by e-mail at