Planning for a Long, Vigorous Tree Life
A little extra care on planting day will really pay off in faster growth, deep root system and a long, vigorous life. Proper planting can make a big difference between a tree that is struggling to survive and one that is thriving, so look at your time as an investment in your tree.
Please consider each of these steps—all are important in achieving a healthy tree.
Before You Plant
Before You Dig
Before you dig be sure to check that you will not be damaging underground utilities like water, sewer, gas, and electricity Two working days before you plan to dig, mark the planting locations with a white flag or white paint (you can even use flour to mark the hole) and call the USA (Underground Service Alert, 800-227-2600 or usanorth811.org) . Your underground lines will be marked by each utility company within two business days using with flags or paint. We recommend that you do not plant trees directly over underground lines to reduce the chance of your damaging lines or your tree needing removal if the lines need replacing.
Check Soil Wetness
Check how wet the soil is by digging a 12″ X 12″ deep hole. If the soil is hard and dry, water thoroughly and wait a day or two for it to partially dry. This will make the soil soft enough to dig. If the soil is moist, you are ready to dig. If the soil is wet, like mud, turn off irrigation and allow to dry for a day or two and digging will be much easier.
Check your drainage and improve it if necessary. Tree roots need both air and water to thrive, soil that is constantly kept wet will actually smother the tree roots. When you dig your test hole, fill it with water and let it drain out. Then fill it again and observe how long it takes to drain. If it takes about 4-6 hours to drain, you have good drainage and you don’t need to improve it. But if water sits in the hole for 6 or more hours, you should try to improve your drainage and/or reduce the frequency of irrigation because tree roots sitting in water will die after several hours.
To improve drainage you can break up the soil around your hole, install/alter/clear drainage lines, or plant on a mound. To break up soil, you can just dig a wider hole or use a shovel or fork to “fluff” the soil up without actually digging it out. To improve drainage this fluffing needs to be done several feet around the tree hole and 15-18″ deep. This gives more places for water to penetrate.
Installing, altering or clearing drain lines may be necessary if the tree location is often is soggy or has standing water. Obviously this could turn out to be a big (and messy!) job but if it is done right, should solve your soggy soil problems. Most newer houses in Roseville have one drainage line that runs around the back yard (look for inlets in the lowest areas) and down the side yards and end near the sidewalk.
Plant on a Mound
Planting on a mound is another way to provide better drainage for your tree. Mounds should be at least 9″ tall and cover as wide an area as possible. The more well-drained root area your tree has, the better and faster it will grow. In order to drain properly, construct the mound out of the soil in your garden or properly prepared fill soil. You can often build a mound from your own soil by shaving a couple of inches off from near the fence line all around the yard. If you must use fill soil, you will need to mix it with your soil to make a transition zone or water may not be able to drain from the mound to the soil. Put a 6″ layer of fill soil down and mix it thoroughly into the top 12″ of soil. Repeat until you have a mound the height you need. Do not use bags of “soil” or compost from the nursery because they are actually made from ground up woody materials and will shrink as they decay. Then what will your tree be holding on to when the mound decays?
Manage your irrigation so that water has time to soak in between waterings. Most homeowners have their irrigation set to go on every day, or even twice a day. For most soils this means the soil never dries out enough to allow air to penetrate downward. This wet soil seems to work fine for lawns with their shallow roots, but can slow the growth of trees and even kill them. We recommend that you check the moisture of your soil with an inexpensive soil moisture meter and reduce the frequency of irrigation so the soil is usually moist, not wet. Clay soils hold lots of water and you may only have to water 1-3 times a week. If you have sandy or gravelly soil, you may need to water 2-4 times a week.Your plants will thank you if you make irrigation changes slowly so they can grow deeper roots. Consider adding a day between waterings when you turn your system on in the spring. Check with your moisture meter that the soil is “moist” and run your irrigation again when it is getting close to “dry”. This will help your trees to develop deep roots and faster growth.
How To Plant
When to Plant
We recommend planting trees during the cooler months of the year and avoid planting during the summer when possible. Planting trees does stress them somewhat and adding heat to the stress makes it harder for the tree to survive.
Before You Dig
See "Before You Plant" instructions above for steps to take before you dig. Be sure to check that you will not be damaging underground utilities like water, sewer, gas, and electricity. Mark the planting locations with a white flag or white paint and call the USA (Underground Service Alert, 800-227-2600 or usanorth811.org).
Digging the Hole
Dig a hole 3′-4′ across, leaving the center 12″ undisturbed. Your hole will look like a moat around an island. This center will become a pedestal for the tree to stand on so it does not sink. The outer part of the hole should be 18″-24″ deep. You should rough up the sides of the hole so roots can more easily penetrate into the surrounding soil.
Help the Roots
To encourage a strong root system, “tease” the roots out of the root-ball by running a large spike or screwdriver down the sides of the root ball. This will straighten out the roots so that they are not circling the root-ball. If there are any roots circling more than 1/3 of the way around the root-ball, cut them with pruning shears or a sharp knife. Keep the roots covered or in the shade so they don’t dry out while you are digging. Circling roots keep the tree from forming strong roots out into the soil and can cause tree toppling in severe cases.
Measure the Pedestal
Put the tree stake down across the hole to use as a height gauge. Cut down the height of the pedestal so that the top of the root-ball is even with the stake; about 2″-3″ above the soil. This will allow excess water to flow away from the tree, reducing root diseases and help your tree grow healthy and fast.
Back-fill the Hole
Back-fill the hole with the soil you removed, discarding any trash or turf and breaking up large clods. If you have rocks larger than your fist, you can remove them. It is tempting to use “good soil” that comes in bags from the nursery, but your tree roots will grow beyond your original hole and so providing a different soil in the hole just encourages the roots to stay in the hole area. Because you are fluffing up the soil as you break it up, the takes up more space. Pile it over the moat area of the hole and it will sink over time. Don’t tamp the soil down, just gently pack it around the roots. Keep it off the root-ball because that will keep water from penetrating.
Stake the Tree
Remove the stake which is right next to the trunk, it’s job was to protect the tree in the nursery. Next, add stakes which will hold up the tree until it is strong enough to stand alone. Put the stakes in at right angles to the prevailing wind if you can. Pound in two stakes near the outer edge of the hole, making sure they are in deep enough so they don’t wobble . The stakes should not touch the tree branches because they will rub and damage the bark. You can cut off the top of the stakes if they are taller than needed.
Add Ties to Stakes
Now add ties from the stake to the tree at the lowest height that the tree needs support. Wrapping the ties in a figure-eight from stake to tree, and back to stake works well. Tie or staple the ends around the stake. Be sure to use pairs of ties at the same height so the tree is supported evenly from both sides. Ties should be soft material that allows the tree to sway, not holds it rigidly. Add another set of ties, if needed, to hold the upper canopy vertical.
Gently water the root-ball and the soil in the moat, this will settle the soil a bit and provide moisture to the tree.In the next month or so, check your tree a couple of times a week to be sure it is moist. The root-ball dries out faster and will probably require more frequent water than the surrounding soil. You can use an inexpensive moisture meter, or just stick your finger in to feel the soil. You want the soil to be moist, not dry or wet. Remember, roots only can grow when they have both air and water in the root zone, so avoid over watering.
Add mulch on top of the soil. The mulch acts as an insulator and keeps the soil moist and cool in the summer and warmer in the winter. As it breaks down, it will provide nutrients. We recommend woody mulch 3″-4″ thick and at least 24″ wide. The wider the area covered by mulch, the faster your tree grows because mulch keeps weeds and grass away and lets the tree roots grow without competition. Keep the mulch 6″ away from the trunk. Good mulches include bark chips, shredded bark, or cocoa hulls. Read the next section on mulch for more details.
The Importance of Mulching
A newly planted tree’s best friend is mulch. It is very important to remember to mulch your tree after you have planted it.
Why mulch is valuable for your trees’ health and care:
- Mulch insulates the soil helping to provide a buffer from heat and cold temperatures.
- Mulch retains water helping to keep the roots moist.
- Mulch keeps weeds out to help prevent root competition.
- Mulch prevents soil compaction.
- Mulch reduces lawn mower damage.
Steps to Adding Mulch Around Your Tree
- Add mulch to the base of your tree by removing any grass within a 3 to 10 foot area depending on the size of your tree.
- Pour natural mulch such as wood chips or bark pieces 2 to 4 inches deep within the circle.
- Keep the mulch from touching the trunk of the tree.