For the Love of Gardening  

What works & What doesn't...

Planting Trees
is serious business -
...if you want them for life.

If you aren't planting your own tree, you  might pay the guy in the blue truck $100 to plant your tree, but if it dies, where is the guy in the blue truck?

Spend $400 to have it done right by someone who can afford to replace it IF it dies.

(these dollars are only examples)

 If you haven't guessed yet, I am passionate about the right way to plant a tree.... first, of course, you must choose one and then understand how to plant it the right way... and why.

BUT - before you read on, here are some very sad photos of what a tree looks like - planted incorrectly - 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

Please finish reading this page so the trees you plant, will not end up like this.

Of course you have already chosen your tree(s), right?  

If not, see this. choosing trees 

(WAIT- Have you ever considered an Eastern Redbud? Wow.... see  my story..)

NOW Back to what's next....


But before we get to the best way to plant trees, here’s what you need to know about how they will come to you. 

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

BARE ROOT TREES are sold with no soil around the root.  These trees are dug and stored when they are dormant thus needing 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 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 tree roots grow.  

Even if it appears that a tall tree must have deep roots, the tree roots (in most cases) actually spread horizontally

...and most of the tree root growth is in the top 10 to 12 inches (25-35 cm) of soil.  (Incredible how a 40 foot tree’s roots  do not go much deeper than a foot or so).

So, when 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's next to impossible.

Not so long ago, burlap was made of hemp. 

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

This may be good for the nursery that digs hundreds of trees, and has to store them for a long time - (could vary from weeks to months to years…)  it is not so good for the tree when it finally gets planted.

When a tree is dug for selling, as much of the root ball as possible is dug along with it and usually supported with a wire basket and burlap until the tree is planted in your garden. 

Remember I said: 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, back to planting.




Make the hole as just 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 just hill up the soil in the pot.) (there is sketch below that shows the flare - check it out).

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. 

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... 


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 zone- as in new builds - 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.  

However, if you do, be sure you know why you are adding anything to the soil, and make sure you 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 that will make the tree strong and healthy. (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 the apple, while better, is not so appealing and you have to reach for it.  

The tree feels the same way.

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

I know that the red text below says to cut off all the wire and burlap... and the small print on my sketch also says that.... but until I make a new sketch.... this one looks like I am leaving all that junk on but DON'T you do that....



Once the hole is dug, and the tree is carefully placed 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. It is a good idea to shake out as much soil from the root ball as possible. The nursery packs the root in clay to form a rather firm if not hard ball to protect the root between digging and re-planting... you need to soak, or shake that off so you can see the roots.

The soil surrounding the root ball will not be the same as the soil in your garden.  You also will be able to see if there are any obvious problems with 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.

 It encourages  naturally occurring mycorrhizae (beneficial fungi) to attach to the small tree roots and extends them (picture hair extensions) and allows those new roots to access essential nutrients as though being transferred from the beneficial microbes to the roots through a straw - you get the idea. (these fungi look like white threads).

BE SURE TO : Keep grass and weeds - and mulch - from around the base of the trunk - they pull moisture and nutrients from the tree roots and will even begin to 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 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 as not to damage any of the roots, especially the small ones. If you see any that are torn, be sure to cut them cleanly with  sterilized pruners.

Fill a bucket with water and leave the tree soaking for a half day especially if the weather is hot as the roots will dry out quickly and the tree can go 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.  Also make the hole wider - like a saucer - so the roots will have room to spread sideways.

Spread the roots out 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 fluff off  the soil around the roots. 

If the tree’s root ball is 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.

Take clean pruners and snip up the sides of the root ball - this will encourage other roots to grow outward.Sort of like shaving up the sides of the hardened mass.

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

Place the tree in the centre of the hole and back fill with the soil you dug out of the hole.



There is no need to amend the soil as you plant, unless you know for sure the soil is mostly clay. 

Remember that the roots will need to seek nutrients from the surrounding soil and if you amend the soil around  your tree, and the soil beyond is very different, the roots will stay encircled in the soil and become a tangled mess, because that soil is richer.

You want the roots to spread. So backfill with the soil that you dug out when digging the hole and add some compost to it.

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

No need to fertilize for the first year or two.

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) so the tiny roots can extract the nutrients from the soil.


Use about a 3 inch (7-8 cm) layer of shredded bark in a ring. Shredded bark will not repel water like chips, stones or  synthetic mulches.  Do not pile any 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 also, so you can check for disease or insects.

Do not use STONES - stones require landscape fabric beneath and although that may help to keep weeds down initially, they will grow through.

Besides, it creates too much heat and water will often run off the stones and not penetrate beneath the fabric - then the tree dries out. 

 The mulch will also 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 dribble for a least a few hours. 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 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.


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...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 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. (this is on planting landscape trees)