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How to Plant a Tree

It is spring time and with spring comes projects, often in the form of landscaping. If your landscaping ambitions are large this spring let’s talk about the largest of them all, a tree. At the Master Gardeners Plant Sale this Saturday, May 7th, Nucor will be handing out free trees. The Montgomery County Soil and Water Conservation District is hosting a native plant sale, including native trees, thru May 16th on their website. With all these opportunities, I think it is best to discuss how to plant your new trees. It is a 12- step process according to Lindsey Purcell, the Urban Forestry Specialist at Purdue University.

1. Placement. When picking your placement, consider the trees full size. Will it be too close to a structure or utility? Consider the vertical and horizontal growth of the canopy and root system.

2. Dig the planting pit 1-1.5 times as wide as the root system. BEFORE DIGGING, call 811 to identify underground utility lines. Providing space when digging the planting pit for the roots to expand is crucial. Dig the hole no deeper than the depth of the main order root system. Shave or cut the outer inch of the roots on all sides and the bottom. This will remove the malformed roots and promote lateral rooting instead of circular. Find the root flare and make sure it is not below the soil line at final grade establishment. When handling the tree, always handle by the container or root ball, not the trunk!

3. Provide proper drainage. Check to be sure the soil type in the planting area has good drainage. If unsure of the soil type, you can fill the pit half full with water, if the water is gone after two hours, the drainage is good!

4. Prune the tree to remove and prevent problems. Remove dead, broken and damaged branches and any other nonbeneficial plant parts. Develop a strong branch structure, establishing a central leader system.

5. Set the tree in the hole with the root collar even or slightly above the existing grade. Planting too deep is the most common reason for mortality in a new tree. Be certain the root flare is visible above the soil line.

6. Remove all foreign materials from the root ball. Remove wires, tags, twine, cords, containers and nonbiodegradable containment bags. If planting a balled and burlap tree, remove the upper 1/2 to 1/3 of the burlap is all that is needed.

7. Gently refill the hole with native soil. No additives! Settle the soil with water and lightly tamp to remove air pockets and insure good root/soil contact. Construct a small earth rim with excess soil around the planting pit to help hold water during supplemental irrigation.

8. Stake the tree, if necessary. It is not always recommended to construct a support system, and when it is necessary it should only be in place for up to one year.

9. Mulch the planting are around the tree. Two to three inches of mulch should suffice, don’t smother the trunk.

10. Water the tree, but don’t drown it. A thorough soaking is better than light frequent watering. One inch per week from rainfall or supplemental watering is a good rule of thumb.

11. Protect the tree from animals and humans. Plastic expanding wraps are ideal for protecting against deer and small animals. Make sure to keep the string trimmer and mower away from the trunk and bark.

12. Avoid fertilization during the first growing season. It can cause stress to the tree and delay establishment.

All this information was taken from “Tree Installation: Process and Practices” by Lindsey Pell.

If you have any questions or concerns about planting a new tree or accessing an issue or disease in an established tree on your property, give me a call and I would be happy to take a look.

– Tricia Herr is the Agriculture and Natural Resources Educator for the Montgomery County Purdue Extension Office. She can be reached at triciaherr@purdue.edu