I’d love to connect with you! Sign up for my monthly newsletter, "Garden Bliss & Blunder”

Planting Trees
is serious business 
- we want them for life.

If you aren't planting your own tree, you may consider hiring "the guy in the blue truck" for $100 to plant your tree, but if the tree dies, where is the guy in the blue truck?

Hire a professional to do it right and who guarantee it and replace it IF it dies.

 If you haven't guessed yet, I am passionate about the right way to plant a tree.... first, choose one for your zone, the light and space it will need and then understand how to plant it correctly and why.

BUT - first, here are some very sad photos of the results of an incorrectly planted tree - such an unnecessary waste of money, and time ...and nature.

This is a note from

Lyle Collins of Southern Trillium LLC

In Georgia...

who took these photos and said:

"This is a textbook example of a girdling root.

We dug this out of a client’s yard this morning. The client said it had been dying back on one side of the canopy. It was also planted under the utility lines. I recommended that we remove it as we redesigned the entire area.

Upon digging it up, it was obvious why it was struggling. A single root girdled nearly all the way around.

I am not sure who planted it or when, but I believe I am safe in assuming it was a pot bound container grown tree."

Fall, 2017

Keep reading so the trees

you plant do not end up like that.

If you still haven't chosen a tree, look here:

 choosing trees 

(Would you consider an Eastern Redbud?

maybe after you see my story..)

Now, Back to Basics....


(understand this before you plant)

BALLED and BURLAPPED- or  B&B - means the tree is dug at the nursery and its root ball is wrapped clay soil, in burlap inside a wire basket, all held together with synthetic cording- ready for shipping or storing.  

BARE ROOT TREES are sold with no soil around the root.  These trees are dug and stored in a cool place when they are dormant so they need no soil around them to keep the roots alive.They should be planted while still dormant.

They may arrive with a bit of peat and plastic wrap around the root, but no soil.

POTTED TREES come in containers or pots. These trees are usually smaller (easier to transport by the home gardener) and may be dug by the nursery days or weeks (tragically, sometimes months) before going to the garden shops to sell.


If you live in a climate that has cold winters, plant deciduous trees when dormant, either in the early spring as soon as the ground thaws, or in the fall; but well before frost. 

However, too late in the fall brings some other issues.

Early cold winters bring snow, creating dry, desert-like conditions, and because the trees and the ground stay frozen, neither will benefit from snow until it melts. 

So unless you can water your newly planted trees a lot before the ground freezes, wait until spring when the soil warms up and you can stay on top of the watering.

Hot summers are not good times to plant as the tree is already under stress and the heat only adds to that.

Evergreens can be planted with a bit more latitude but  it's still not a good idea when the summer is hot.


Before you decide which method is best for your garden, think about how the roots grow.  

It may seem that a tall tree has deep roots,but tree roots (in most cases) actually spread horizontally.

Most tree roots are in the top 10 to 12 inches (25-35 cm) of soil.  (Incredible how a 40 foot tree’s roots don't go much deeper than a foot or so).

If a tree is planted with a wire basket, lined with burlap and tied with synthetic cord left on its root ball, imagine how difficult it is for those tiny hair-like roots to push through that burlap... next to impossible.

Originally, burlap was made of hemp. 

Today, it is often synthetic, or be burlap treated with synthetics to keep it from deteriorating. 

This is good for the nursery that digs hundreds of trees, and has to store them for a long time - (sometimes weeks, months or even years…) but not so good for the tree.

When they dig a tree to sell, they get as much of the root ball as possible along with some heavy clay soil to hold the roots intact and moist - all of which is then supported with a wire basket and burlap until the tree is shipped to the garden centre, and then to your garden  until it is planted. 

There are many professionals who still believe all this supporting material should be left intact when the tree is planted.

I strongly disagree and  here is

some science to show you why.

See the Myths and Truths about planting B&B Trees

Once in the ground, that poor tree is limited in its ability to push out tiny roots through the burlap to get water and nutrients from the soil. 

It might be a bit like the Victorian corset- restricting both breath and movement.  If you can imagine how that felt, then you can understand how those tree roots feel...smothered and restricted.

Now, let's get back to planting.




Make the hole just as deep as the bottom of the root ball.  Burying it too deep will lessen its life span. 

Look for the slight flare where the trunk meets the root ball… that flare should be above ground.(don't be fooled by how deep the tree is planted in the pot... the nurseries don't always have the time to check that flare and often just hill up the soil in the pot.)

(see the sketch below that shows the flare).

Make the hole three times the width of the root ball and let it slope outward to the sides -like a saucer -so the roots will have room to spread. Fluff the edges so they let the little roots in.

If your garden tree is planted in a newly built subdivision, you  may  have to dig the hole wider because not long before you  moved in, there were many heavy machines and trucks pounding over the ground where you are attempting to make a  garden.  That compacted soil will inhibit those tiny hair-like roots, so dig wider.

Remove the soil from the roots - as much as possible and wash them off.  This soil is not native to your garden and will only slow down the growth of your tree. Just use the soil you dug out and don't add anything to it except some compost on top of the soil when you are finished... then mulch.. 


In the past, I have suggested amend the soil when planting but recently, I have read some of the scientific research (see Dr. Chalker-Scott's research) about what works and what doesn't in planting trees, and the research shows there is no proven benefit in adding anything to the planting hole.

The idea is that as much soil should be removed from the new tree's roots, and the tree should be planted in the soil in which it is expected to grow.  (a case for the right tree in the right place)

And although I agree with this, (because proof is more real than anecdotes), there may be some instances where the soil is in a new construction or build site - where the soil is made of bits of concrete, drywall, and other icky bits and the so-called topsoil is a mere few inches on top of this debris - you may decide to add compost and microbes.

If you do, be sure you know why you are adding anything to the soil, and mix any additions with the soil that came from the hole.

Otherwise, the tree roots will happily stay in that round hole where you added the good stuff and never reach beyond it to spread roots (they will girdle the hole as in the photos).

 Imagine a bowl of chips and an apple sitting in front of you.  What will you reach for? the chips- if you are like most of  us... and you have to reach for the apple.

The tree feels the same way.

So please - plant with intention - and do your research. 


Once the hole is dug, lay the tree on the ground and remove all the supporting stuff.... wash those roots till you can see them.... but if the tree is too large for you to manage, place it carefully in the centre of the hole, cut off all the cording and burlap and then, with wire cutters, cut away the metal basket - cut off all you can - although you may not be able to remove the piece underneath the root ball without damaging the roots.  

Slit the burlap all around and remove as much as you can- remember the nursery packs the root in clay to form a firm ball to protect the roots between digging and re-planting... you need to soak it, wash it or find some way to remove that clay so you can see the roots.

The soil surrounding the root ball will not be the same as the soil in your garden.  Look at the roots to see if there are any obvious problems: roots that cross, grow in a circle or are tangled and kinked. 

Untangle them - gently - and spread them out... like a 1960's Poodle skirt..They grow out...not down.

Prune any dead, broken or twisted roots carefully to encourage new roots to form horizontally. 

Good compost should be added on top of the ground to feed the soil - not just the plant.

Compost encourages naturally occurring mycorrhizae (beneficial fungi) to attach to the small tree roots, extending them into the soil (picture hair extensions). where they can access essential nutrients. It's like the beneficial microbes are sucked up by the roots through a straw - you get the idea. (these fungi look like white threads).

BE SURE TO : put a 3-4 inch layer of mulch around the tree to keep grass and weeds from around the base of the trunk - they pull moisture and nutrients from the tree roots and can even smother small trees.


This tree above, will eventually smother and die- the roots need to breathe and be close to the surface of the earth.... Please don't do this....it would be like you wearing a stone turtle neck... 

And how can the tree below spread its roots with all this wrapped around it? choking it - where will its roots go but around in a circle...

Please Don't Do This Either...!!


Be careful when you take the bare-root tree from its package so you don't damage any of the small roots, .  Cut any broken or torn roots with clean pruners.

Fill a bucket with water and leave the tree soaking for a half day - especially if the weather is hot. The roots will dry out quickly and put the tree into shock. As you would for the B&B tree, dig the hole larger than the tree’s root; but not too deep. Remember that the flare where the trunk meets the root should not be buried.  Make the hole wider - like a saucer - so the roots will have room to spread sideways.

Spread the roots out horizontally and place them on a small mound of soil so the base is supported by the earth beneath. Begin to back-fill with the soil you removed from the hole, pressing the soil down firmly but gently being careful not to compact the soil. 


Remove the pot and carefully shake or wash off the soil around the roots. 

If the tree’s root ball is matted and thick with roots and the soil does not come off easily, plunge it into a bucket of water to loosen the soil.  This way you can check to see if the roots encircle the pot, are tangled or kinked.

If it is severely pot-bound, take clean pruners or a sharp knife and slit up the sides of the root ball - this will encourage other roots to grow outward. Make lots of slits up the sides of the hardened mass and try to pull out the bottom edge as much as you can.

Dig the hole the way you would for B&B, or bare-root trees. Plant the tree so the flare is just above the top of the soil. 

Place the tree in the centre of the hole and back fill with the soil you dug out of the hole. Water well but don't flood.



Like I said in my note above, there is no need to amend the soil as you plant, unless you know for sure the soil is lacking specific nutrients or in a new construction site.  

Remember the roots need to take in nutrients from the surrounding soil and if you amend the soil around the roots, while the soil beyond the hole is very different, the roots will stay encircled and not extend beyond the new soil and become a tangled mess.

Tamp it down gently to get rid of air pockets, but not so hard that it is compacted which makes it difficult for the nutrients to pass through the soil to the tiny root hairs.

No need to fertilize.

Build an earth dam or ridge around the tree to keep the water from flowing away.

Water well and often. At least twice a week for the first month and keep the earth moist (but not soaking wet) You could leave your hose on trickle for 45 minutes every 2 days for the first week... then twice a week for a week, then once a week.... but more if it is hot and dry.


Use 3 -4 inches (8+ cm)  of shredded or wood chips in around the tree. Shredded bark will not repel water like those large bark chips or synthetic mulches.

Don't pile mulch up around the trunk like a volcano. This will smother the roots and eventually shorten the life-span of the tree. Pull it back and leave a space for air and so it won’t encourage rot and  you can check for disease or insects.

Do not use STONES - stones require landscape fabric beneath and although some believe it helps to keep weeds down, the fabric lets water run off instead of down. Stones create too much heat and water runs off. 

Mulch at least 12-18 inches around the tree to prevent damage from enthusiastic lawn cutters and garden whips. 


Damage to the trunk from these two things is a primary cause of premature tree deaths.


Please remember to water your tree at least twice a week to begin with.  It will not survive long without your commitment to watering.

A nice summer rain shower will not suffice.

Trees will always use the water in their root balls first.  In hot weather, it only takes a couple of days for that root ball to dry out and if there is no water there, the small roots will stop growing.

On the other hand, too much water will drown your tree.  Let water drip onto the root ball slowly, with a soaker hose, or a garden hose left on a trickle for at least 45 minutes at a time. The earth dam will keep the water from running off.

Did you know that in colder zones (3, 4, 5) roots will grow about 18 inches per year?

That kind of growth does not stop after a year, so neither should your watering.  It can take a couple of years for a tree to establish and put out strong roots.. It needs water to do that. So keep watering.


If you still use pesticides (please reconsider) but in the meantime, don't use them near your tree as it will kill those tiny roots.

If you live in a high wind area, or you think your tree is not as strong as you might like, you may stake it for the first year ONLY..but be sure to leave the ties with some slack so the wind can gently move it.... Trees need some wind to strengthen their trunks... so not too tight...

Then be sure to remove ALL the supporting materials. 

All cords, wires too or they can grow into the tree, shortening its life.

Do not prune the first season you plant EXCEPT for crossing limbs, broken or dead branches. 

The tree has already lost more than 90% of its roots when it was dug and adding to its stress is unnecessary at this time.

You won’t need to wrap the trunk either except  at the base in winter when bunnies or other hungry critters may find the bark tasty, but be sure to remove during the growing season.

Check the growth of your tree in the following seasons - if it is growing faster and larger than you planned, or if it is too close to a house or your neighbour’s fence, it is time to move it before it gets too large.

See what can happen below?

Here are other links with more tree planting information you might like to see. 

http://extension.usu.edu/files/publications/publication/NR_FF_017pr.pdf (this is on planting landscape trees)





Keep Gardening, and sign up for my monthly newsletter "Garden Bliss & Blunder"

I love connecting with other passionate  gardeners and my monthly newsletter  is full of neat stuff about our journey past the blunders to the blissful gardens  we crave so much.