Planting Trees

Tree Selection

Many trees planted each year by well-meaning homeowners and community workers will never flourish because they are hopelessly unsuited for the conditions in which they are placed. Before rushing in to plant just any available trees, do enough research and planning to ensure success.

Factors to Consider:

  • Plant hardiness zone and heat tolerance
  • Native plant species vs. non-native plant species
  • Planting location and surroundings
  • Microclimates
  • Desired tree function
  • Season of planting

Taking a bit of time to plan before putting a tree in the ground will save money and headaches in the future. When choosing a tree, make sure to do a complete site evaluation to understand the conditions and ensure the best tree for the site chosen.

Hardiness Zone Map

When to Plant

It is best to plant while the trees are dormant in late fall, winter, or early spring.

Deciduous trees planted in the fall, after the heat of summer diminishes, have several months to re-establish their root system and often emerge healthier the next spring than those transplanted in the heat of summer.

Evergreens should only be planted in late winter or early spring – but beware of foliage drying and “winter burn”. Unlike deciduous trees, evergreens hold onto their foliage throughout the winter, and to keep them green they need a lot of moisture. Bright sun and harsh winds in the winter months can cause the needles to lose moisture, and plant roots cannot take up enough water from the soil in frozen ground, which can cause dry foliage and “winter burn”. In newly planted trees where the root system is already too small for the canopy, this problem is made worse.

Different types of Nursery Stock

Trees may be purchased as bare-root, container-grown, or balled and burlapped. Correct planting and initial maintenance are essential for a long, healthy life for your tree. The most common cause of poor tree health is poor planting: too deep, too shallow, or in too small an area. The objective is to plant the tree so that the root flare at the bottom of the trunk is at (or slightly above) the surrounding ground level.

General Planting Rules

Mark the planting site and remove any vegetation, especially turf, from an area at least three to five times the diameter of the tree’s root ball.

  1. Create a root zone, not just a hole. Break up the soil 8 to 10 inches deep – but no deeper than the root ball – in a space two to three times as wide as the root ball. The objective is to de-compact the soil so new roots can spread out into the surrounding soil and create a strong base for the tree. This becomes especially important in times of drought, flooding and storms.
  2. Expose the root flare within the root ball by removing excess soil from the top.  Then, in the middle of the prepared root zone, dig a hole deep enough so the root flare will be just at the surrounding soil.  Roughen the sides of the hole to remove glazing caused by the shovel moving through the soil.
  3. Gently prune away any dried, damaged and broken roots from bare-root trees. Pot-bound container-grown trees may show circling roots that should be cut through or straightened out to prevent later girdling and to encourage natural root growth. If circling roots are severe, return the tree to the nursery for a replacement.  Check visible roots on balled and burlapped trees and lightly prune any obvious broken, damaged ends or circling roots.
  4. Install the young tree at the same soil depth that it has been growing or slightly higher. A slight rise in the center of the hole will keep water from “pooling” in the bottom of the hole. The depth from the top of this small mound to the surface of the ground should be no greater than the depth of the root ball while allowing the root flare to be at or slightly above the surrounding ground level.  Do not plant the tree too deeply!
  5. Remove all the ties and roll the burlap and other ball-wrapping materials away from the top half of the root ball. If possible, remove all packaging materials to give good contact with the native soil and removes hinders root growth.
  6. Backfill with soil excavated from the hole until it is about 3/4 full. Do not fill the hole with mulch, compost, gravel or other soil amendments.  Research indicates that over amended soil in the planting hole discourages roots from growing into the surrounding soil.
  7. Add water and allow the soil in the hole to settle.  Finish backfilling around the root ball. Use the water to float out air pockets that can cause the roots to dry out and the soil to sink. Make sure that soil fill does not cover the root flare.
  8. Firm and level the soil, but don’t re-compact it solidly.
  9. Don’t replace sod over the root zone or in the hole.
  10. Mulch takes the place of the natural layer of leaf litter found on the forest floor, and it greatly benefits the tree.  Mulch should be made of a coarsely chopped organic material like chipped or shredded hardwood or shredded pine bark, and should be applied 2 – 4 inches deep.  Never pile mulch around the base of the tree. Mulch should never touch the tree.

Urban & Community Tree Inventories

Courtesy: North Carolina Division of Forest Resources

To effectively manage community trees, a tree inventory is a valuable tool and is an essential first step in developing a management plan. Managing tree care, planting, pruning and removals in a cost-effective way can also be improved by a tree inventory.  There are many different ways to conduct an inventory.  To help decide which inventory approach and tree inventory is best for your needs click on the links below for additional information:

How Much Information Do You Need?

A full inventory of all trees on community property can be collected, or only street trees, or only non-street trees, depending on the needs of the community. If the community budget does not initially allow for a full inventory, a program can still be started by collecting only hazard tree, and/or boundary tree, and/or line-of-sight tree (to determine visibility at intersections) information. Managing for liability and safety are good reasons to consider a community tree inventory.

Standard information typically collected for each tree includes species, diameter, condition or maintenance needs, location (address or GPS information) and utility and/or sidewalk conflicts. Available planting space at each location is useful to collect for planning future urban forest needs.

To help decide which inventory approach and tree inventory is best for your needs click on the links below for additional information: