Seven Steps for Planting a Tree the Right Way Every Time

Joe Lamp’l is a gardener and host of PBS’ “Growing a Greener World.” We partnered with him for Earth Day, in an effort to plant more trees as part of our "One Million Trees and Counting" campaign.

At Lands’ End we’re committed to keeping our forests green, which is why we partnered with the National Forest Foundation back in 2012 to plant a million trees. We succeeded, but decided a million wasn’t enough. So we extended our promise and called it “One Million Trees and Counting.” We’ve resolved to plant 192,000 more trees in 2017. We hope you’ll join us, plant your own tree and help us keep the earth green.

With a little luck and good timing, sometimes sticking a tree in the ground and walking away can be enough for it to survive. But knowing how to plant a tree the right way will ensure success every time. 

What’s the best time to plant a tree? As a general rule, if you can dig a hole, you can plant a tree. Some times are better than others, however. Fall is the very best time of year to relocate trees and shrubs or plant new ones. Early spring is a popular time as well. The more time you can put between planting a tree and the arrival of summer, the better.

For the best chance of establishing your tree no matter when you plant, follow these seven important steps:


 1. Prepare the proper planting hole. Dig your hole to be three times wider than the current root mass, but never deeper than the plant was in its previous environment.

You know the bottom part of the trunk that flares out? That’s called (surprise!) the flare. Don’t plant it so deep that the flare is covered.


2. Plant high. Not in altitude. But leave the root ball about 25% higher than the surrounding soil level and taper the soil up to cover all the roots. Cover with a generous layer of mulch. It’s better to plant a tree high so that water drains away than for a plant to sit in a bowl and collect excess water.


  3. Inspect the roots. When you take the plant out of its container, look at the roots. If they are densely bound or have started growing in the shape of the container (even slightly), break up the pattern.

It’s vital to stop this pattern now. The biggest mistake you can make at this point is to place a rootbound plant into the ground as is. Unless you break up the pattern, you’ve likely sentenced the plant to a slow death. At a minimum, it will never establish or reach a fraction of its potential.

Don’t worry about hurting the roots or losing soil. Break them up or even cut some away. Better to give them a fresh start than to let them get worse.


 4. Don’t amend the soil. That means don’t add fertilizer or additional organic material to the area. (Unless you intend to amend the entire area where roots will eventually grow). Roots growing in amended soil rarely venture into harder native soil. The long-term affect is a smaller root system, reduced growth and a less hardy plant. Instead, just break up the clumps in existing soil and remove rocks and backfill.


 5. Eliminate air pockets. You could lightly tamp or hand-pack the soil around the plant roots to ensure good soiltoroot contact. But I prefer to add a stiff spray of water to the hole after backfilling halfway. Not only does it provide needed moisture but the water also helps eliminate air pockets that
could result in dead roots or worse. Once all the soil is in place,
water again gently but thoroughly.


 6. Add mulch. Starting about two inches from the trunk (leave this area exposed), place roughly two inches of organic matter such as shredded leaves or ground bark or nuggets around the plant. Further is better. Mulch helps retain muchneeded moisture and helps keep roots cooler near the surface—a very important requirement for newly installed plants.


7. Water properly until established. The most important job you will have after planting is watering until trees are established. This can take weeks to months, or even a year in some cases. You can get automated drip hoses on battery-operated timers, or you can do it the old-fashioned way…

 The key to proper watering is slow and deep irrigation. That allows soil around the roots to saturate, so the roots have time to absorb the moisture, while avoiding excess runoff. Short, manual blasts of water from an overhead hose or sprinkler system won’t cut it.

I water newly planted trees every day for about the first week. For the next two weeks, I ease off to about every other day. Then I gradually water less and less from there.

However, there’s a fine line between watering enough and watering too much. In the first few weeks, soil that is moist but not soggy is your target range. But to add to the challenge, soil that appears dry at the top may be very wet a few inches down. And the opposite is true as well. All the more reason it is
important to apply your detective skills based on observation
and knowing how much or little you’ve been watering.

Please join me this Earth Day and let’s all #PlantATreeLE.

Photographs courtesy of Joe Lamp’l