13 Principles To Remember When Planting A Tree

Planting a tree? Great! Make sure to heed these 13 principles to ensure the project is successful and yields healthy, hearty trees for future generations.

by Zach Loeks
PHOTO: courtesy of Zach Loeks

We are going to work our way up from the ground to discover key principles of planting a tree properly.

Principle # 1

Perennials are long-lived plants that need good quality soil to help them establish and survive their first summer and winter. They also need the soil to be prepared for long-term health and vigor.

Proper preparation of the soil at the beginning, before you plant, is really important. It is much much easier to do before your plants are in the ground.

Principle #2

It is also critical that you choose plants that are site-suitable.  Your perennials need to be suited to:

  • your soil
  • the amount of water in the soil
  • your climate and available sun

If the soil is not the right pH or too wet; if the climate is too cold; or it is too shady or sunny, then your perennial won’t survive. Your local hardiness zone and the quality of your soil pH are harder to change.

It is easier to find ways to improve soil drainage and relative sun availability.

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Read more: Planting trees? These 10 tools will make the job easier!

Principle #3

Bare root trees are always better. The only reason a potted tree will be better is if a bare root tree is improperly planted.

Potted trees are almost always “root bound” and their roots are strangling each other. They’re typically overgrown, with decay beginning in places. Overall, you can expect a confused plant root system.

Bare root trees, on the other hand, have open root systems ready to be layered and planted.

Principle #4

Small plants are more affordable and easier to plant. However, healthy large bare root trees will also yield sooner.

That being said, most small (3- to 5-foot) bare root “whips” will catch up with any 8-foot tree in a few years, as they have less transplant shock!  So, plant either really affordable 12-inch trees and wait for them to grow because they were so affordable, or spend a bit more for 3- to 4-foot whips.

But don’t waste your money on huge trees that are expensive and costly to transport or ship.

Principle # 5

When planting your tree, make sure it has room to grow.

Not all trees need the same space. But all trees grow to occupy the space they do need, which is specific to the variety.  Know your tree’s full size at maturity, and plan to plant it so it can grow to its full size.

Principle #6

Dig your hole 6 inches wider than the widest width of the bare roots and 6 inches deeper than the deepest root. Then crack the sides of the hole with your shovel blade in several places to make very distinct breaks in the hole’s sides. This will allow and encourage your roots to explore outside your hole.

You don’t want your hole to be another circular pot for the roots to travel around and around in.

Read more: There are distinct challenges you may encounter when planting on raised ground.

Principle #7

Always spread out the roots and rootlets into their natural layering when planting a tree.

If you look at a bare root transplant, you can see there is often a central stem or many fibrous roots. Either way, if you lay it out you will see the roots have natural depths they would have reached growing in the nursery field plots.

Plant the roots this natural way by opening up the roots in the hole, then back fill some soil. Pull up any little roots that should be at a higher level in the hole and back fill more soil.

Now assess which roots are pinned down by soil and should be higher in the hole at their natural level. Pull these up and finish filling the hole.

You have planted an open and layered root system for your tree

Principle #8

Always infill with a mix of local soil and your compost mix when planting a tree.

If you fill the hole with only a “better” soil mix and none of the native (local) soil, it will create a trap for your tree roots, which will first occupy this loose and rich material before venturing out and down into the native soil.

You want your tree roots to explore and establish in that native soil. This establishment is what makes your tree more hardy to the cold winter, build relationships with local soil life, and hold it firm against winds. And, overall, you’ll build vigorous and healthy growth.

Principle #9

Many trees benefit from a little support early on.

A wooden stake or a t-bar can support the tree.  Just pound it into the ground about 6 inches away and use a piece of fencing wire and cut-off house piece to protect the tree bark.

Read more: Plant trees to create windbreaks on your farm!

Principle #10

Every tree needs a rodent guard. Mice and voles love your fruit trees’ young and tender bark, and they will eat it. So put on a rodent guard.

Rodent guards should be as tall as your highest snow level in winter—that’s a minimum 24-inch guard for a nice fruit tree.  If the tree is smaller, these plastic guards can be cut to size and more added over the years.

Eventually you can take them off.

Principle #11

Get a metal name tag or identification number tag! The most amazing thing about planting perennials is that they last for years and years and years.

The most disappointing thing about perennials? We seldom remember exactly what we planted years later. And the next generation may not know the property and, as a result, never know which tree is which.

If the plant is successful, we want to know what it was so we can get more, or encourage others to plant this great variety. Metal, laser-etched tags do the trick. Other tags won’t last more then a few months to a few years.

Principle #12

Mulch around a tree when planting. All trees want to have the benefit of mulch.

You can use a hardwood chip mulch, or a straw or leaf mulch. You can even use softwood chips.

The benefits of mulch include:

  • suppress weeds that might compete with young tree roots
  • hold moisture to prevent roots from desiccation
  • stabilize the soil

Mulch will also encourage soil life to colonize the area and build relationships with your tree. In many soils, cracks can open in unmulched clay and expose your deepest tree roots to cold, heat and desiccation!

Principle #13

And, of course, trees love companion plants!  Every tree wants companions that will help create an ecosystem design with diversified form, function and potential.

If you can, try to include plants that protect the soil (like ground covers), plants that host pollinators (such as flowering plants) and plants that fix nitrogen (like clovers).

Grow on,


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