The 1001 Techniques for Planting a Tree—Part 1

There are as many ways to plant a tree as there are gardeners on Earth! This is something I learned many years ago! Confident that MY technique was THE technique, what a surprise it was to discover that others also knew how to plant trees successfully! This week, I wanted to share MY technique with you and then I’ll show you the other techniques, just as good as mine!

A well-planted tree is a tree that will be there forever. Image: Unsplash.

MY Technique (The Best) For Planting Trees

I must confess that I learned to plant trees at school, during my training as a professional horticulturist. We then learned to plant according to the norms of the BNQ (Bureau de normalisation du Québec). (Thanks, Guy!) Since then, I have planted several hundred trees both in fluffy loose soil and in compacted gravel. My way of planting trees has remained fairly similar to the one I learned 30 years ago.

First Step: Watering

The first thing I do before starting is to generously water the trees to be planted. I want the root ball to be soaked. Here, years of experience, not always in the best conditions, allowed me to arrive at this essential conclusion. In times of great drought, it may be nice to water and water after planting, but nothing is more effective than a clump of roots soaked in water that will moisten the surrounding soil. I practically drown the plant by watering several times at intervals. If I can, I even water the day before planting. All the trees I have planted by watering the root ball well before planting have survived the worst droughts without flinching.

Digging A Hole… A Big Hole

Then I dig the hole. Regardless of the nature of the soil, I dig a hole that is twice the width of the root ball. For example, if a potted tree is 15 inches (40 cm) in diameter, I dig a hole about 30 inches (80 cm) in diameter. Yes, even in heavy clay, even in a soil that contains more rocks than soil, I dig a big hole. I also dig 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) deeper than the height of the root ball.

The excavated soil is enriched with 2 shovelfuls of compost. Image: Andres Siimon sur Unsplash.

The excavated soil is put aside, not too far from the hole, because it’s what I will use to fill the hole, after positioning the tree. I remove the big stones. I add two generous shovelfuls of compost to this existing soil and mix everything together. If I have some on hand, I’ll also add a couple of handfuls of granular chicken manure fertilizer, but you can do without it.

At the bottom of the hole, I place my amended soil. I take care not to add too much, because from experience, it is easier to add than to remove it once the tree is in the hole.

The Art of Unpotting

And it is only then that I remove the pot or begin to untie the root ball.

I’ve experienced about everything at this stage and that is why I am proceeding with great care. For trees grown in pots, I especially watch out for the poorly rooted ones. If I feel that everything is going to collapse, I put the pot in the hole, adjust the level (because the top of the root ball must arrive at the same level as the surface of the planting bed) and I cut off the pot with a utility knife (X-Acto type). Yes, I cut the pot into pieces! I take care to remove the whole pot, even the bottom. My mission here is to damage as few roots as possible.

If the plant is well rooted, I simply turn the tree on its side and carefully pull the pot off before placing the root ball in the hole.

For large-caliber trees, grown in wire baskets, I start by tilting the tree at the bottom of the hole, adjust the level, then I proceed to do the stripping.

First, I remove all the nylon ties, without exception. I have already seen dead trees whose trunks were strangled by these ropes. Even though burlap is degradable, I cut off whatever I can remove. And finally, I tackle the wire basket. With pliers, I cut everything that is accessible, then I crush the wire basket as much as possible to the bottom of the hole. I don’t remove the whole basket, because that much manipulation will damage the root ball. But I fold it back, because I’ve seen mature trees whose superficial roots were trapped in the wire left on the surface.

Use Your Eye Like a Level

The golden rule is that the top of the root ball must arrive at the same height as the final level of the soil all around. And I stick to that rule with a few exceptions. If I plant in very sandy soil, I will tend to plant slightly lower, so as to create a bit of a depression that can collect a little more rain. On the extreme opposite, in very heavy clay soils, I plant slightly higher and use soil to shape a mound. I do this in order to promote the flow of water around the trunk.

Compact With Tender Firmness

When everything is in place, I start filling. I work with my hands! I push down the earth. Then I compact it with my hands. My goal is to eliminate all air pockets and lightly compact the soil. But I still want air in my soil. This is why I will rarely be seen jumping with both feet to compact the soil!

A Donut and (Maybe) a Stake

With the remaining soil, I form a short berm around the root ball, generally aligned with the outer edge of the planting hole. This is what I call the donut: a sort of above-ground pool that I can fill with water immediately after planting. The donut will be particularly useful in times of drought, making sure that all the water goes directly to moisten the roots of the new tree.

As for the stake, I install one only if the tree is in a windy environment, because that is the ultimate mission of a stake: to prevent a tree from being uprooted by the wind.

One day I’ll write an entire article on staking. I’ve seen so many wounds and so many forgotten stakes that I’ve lost count. For the moment, if you feel you do need a stake, at least make sure that it doesn’t rub against the trunk at the slightest gust of wind. Also, this stake can—I would even say must!—be removed after one full year of growth. There is no need to keep it in place any longer than that.

Next week, I’ll cover all the other tree planting techniques I’ve seen from colleagues and friends that work just as well as my technique!

In conclusion, I must emphasize that the success of planting a tree is not only based on the right planting technique, but also on putting the right tree in the right place. Each soil has a range of trees that suits it and to think that modifying the nature of the soil around the tree will help it to survive in a soil that does not suit it is a mistake, in my opinion. Better to choose well, from the start.

Julie Boudreau is a horticulturist who trained at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. She’s been working with plants for more than 25 years. She has published many gardening books and hosted various radio and television shows. She now teaches horticulture at the Centre de formation horticole of Laval. A great gardening enthusiast, she’s devoted to promoting gardening, garden design, botany and ecology in every form. Born a fan of organic gardening, she’s curious and cultivates a passion for all that can be eaten. Julie Boudreau is “epicurious” and also fascinated by Latin names.

6 comments on “The 1001 Techniques for Planting a Tree—Part 1

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  2. Pingback: The 1001 Techniques for Planting a Tree—Part 2 - Laidback Gardener

  3. Amendment below the tree eventually decomposes and settles, which allows the tree to settle in slightly deeper than it was initially planted. I do not dig holes any deeper than necessary. I prefer for the trees to sit of a firm foundation. Fortunately, the soil here is either of very good quality, so needs no amendment, or so sandy that it needs no lossening.

  4. I understand your trepidation concerning wire baskets, but our family has had no issues regarding planting them intact around the root ball.

    Grandpa planted 32 sugar maples in 1990, all in baskets. He was told the baskets are designed so roots are not impeded during growing. Nor do they girdle the root system or alter the soil.

    Grandpa took them at their word. I watched as he selected the trees and spoke with a nursery employee who was a certified arborist. Grandpa said the trees would one day be my responsibility and made sure I knew what was going on. (Turns out a cousin now owns the land and they’re HER responsibility – oh well!)

    They were planted by the nursery under supervision of the arborist. They even had a water tank truck that kept things well moistened, and I remembering a guy hosing the root balls while they were on the truck, so you’re in good company on that note!

    We’re sold on keeping root baskets in place. Never lost a wire rooted tree due to root issues because of them – in fact, our only root problems came from a new, adjacent housing development that literally dammed the area’s drainage system in that corner of our property, swamping some trees’ roots. A few started suffering, but we got the area drained and they bounced back.

    They’re beautiful and make wonderful syrup!

    Only lost two when a truck rammed them at about 10 years planted.

    We just be sure to buy from a reputable, certified nursery and follow its directions to the letter.

    Happy arboring!

  5. Thanks very much! Your timing is perfect I’ll be planting an Autumn Blaze Maple in my front yard next week.

  6. Lisa A Jelle

    Thanks for this informative article! I have planted a couple of smaller trees in recent years, not too differently from your method. They are still alive so far- success!

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