7 Common Tree-transplant Mistakes

When updating your farm landscape with trees and shrubs, avoid making these transplanting faux pas to ensure your plants thrive.

by Dani Yokhna

Don't get caught making these 7 tree-planting mistakes! Photo courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock (HobbyFarms.com)
Courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Carefully transplant a tree so that it’s positioned upright.

As a hobby farmer, you probably spend a lot of time, attention and farm real estate growing tasty, nutritious food for your family or for market. While this is a worthy use of your land and resources, it’s also important to consider the value trees and shrubs bring to your farmstead. Trees and shrubs can serve a number of functions, including blocking noise and pollution, preventing erosion and runoff, acting as windbreaks, providing shade cover, and adding to your farm-scenery aesthetics. When properly placed, trees and shrubs can even help reduce your farmhouse energy costs. (Read more about this in “Passive Aggressive Behavior” in the March/April issue of Hobby Farm Home.)

For those with adept green thumbs, tree and shrub transplanting might seem like second nature. Once you determine the proper location with ideal conditions for the tree or shrub species, the transplanting process is relatively simple: Dig a hole, set the plant, backfill and water. However, by paying attention to some key planting details, you can ensure your fragile young tree or shrub grows into a stalwart element of the farm landscape. Below are common planting mistakes to avoid along with tips to ensure your tree or shrub achieves successful growth.

Mistake No. 1: Planting in the wrong season.
The best time to plant a tree or shrub is when the plant has gone dormant, a period when energy is focused on root growth, as this will help the new tree become better established.

Horticulturists usually recommend planting in fall, when temperatures are moderate and the new transplant can receive adequate rainfall, though early spring can be OK, too. According to the Clemson Cooperative Extension, “Fall planting allows the carbohydrates produced during the previous growing season to be directed to root growth since there is little demand from the top. This additional growth may lessen the dependency of the plant on supplemental irrigation the following summers.”

The best planting time, of course, can vary with the species of tree or shrub and the USDA hardiness zone where you’re located, so talk to experts at your local nursery when determining a planting date.

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Mistake No. 2: Overlooking the power of dirt.
As you might already know from growing crops or flowers, planting isn’t as easy as just digging in the dirt. Trees and shrubs also need proper drainage and soil pH between 5.5 and 6.5 in order to thrive, so test the soil before planting and amend as needed.

If you’re bringing in dirt to the planting site, sample your soil and send to a lab for testing after the soil you’ll be planting with is in place. To test for soil drainage, the Virginia Cooperative Extension offers this tip: “Dig the hole for your new plant and fill it with water. If the water doesn’t drain in 24 hours, plant elsewhere.”

If drainage is the main issue, you can install a drain tile to divert water away from the planting site. Dolomitic lime is typically used to raise soil pH, while sulfur or aluminum sulfate can lower pH.

Overall, the soil should be comprised of about 10 to 20 percent organic matter, such as compost, leaf mold or composted pine bark, according to the Clemson University Extension, but this should already be in place before you begin digging the hole. If you confine the amendments to the planting hole, you can limit root growth. Also be aware that fine-textured amendments, such as peat moss, can retain too much moisture, while coarse-textured amendments, such as composted pine bark, are less likely to do so.

Mistake No. 3: Digging too deep.
Often trees and shrubs are set in a hole that’s too deep, which can cause the plant to suffocate. While different horticulturists might provide different guidelines, a good rule of thumb is to avoid setting the plant any deeper than its original planting depth. If transplanting a ball-and-burlap tree, the top of the root ball should rest 1 to 2 inches above the soil level, according to the West Virginia University Extension Service. For bare-root trees and shrubs, soil should rest at the collar (aka, the soil depth of the original planting, which is evident on the plant’s trunk). If you’re planting in sandy soil and the tree has the potential to drop slightly, dig a slightly more shallow hole to accommodate.

Mistake No. 4: Not providing enough water.
Because a large percentage of the water-uptake roots can be damaged when digging up a transplant, newly transplanted trees need a regular irrigation schedule for the first two to three years after planting, especially during dry periods. Ball-and-burlap transplants will likely need a weekly watering, while bare-root transplants will need watered two to three times per week. Of course, it’s necessary to pay attention to your climate and water accordingly.

Water long and slow directly to the tree or shrub roots. To help concentrate water around the root ball, the Clemson Extension Service recommends constructing a 3-inch-high water ring around it. Remove the ring before winter so that the water doesn’t freeze and injure the trunk. 

Mistake No. 5: Providing too little “breathing” room.
Just as correct planting depth is important, so is the planting-hole width. According to the WVU Extension, the hole should be at least 1 foot wider than the root ball or spread of roots with vertical sides. Other resources, such as the Arbor Day Foundation, recommend a hole at least three times the diameter of the root ball or spread. Also take into account the size of the mature tree, and situate it in space where it has room to grow. The University of Georgia offers this equation to calculate space needed:

  • Estimate diameter of tree at maturity (in 25 years for yard or farm trees)
  • Multiply that amount by 2.25 to determine circular planting space.

Mistake No. 6: Injuring the tree.
It is easy and common to damage a transplant’s roots or trunk during uprooting, transporting and transplanting. Use these tips for more careful handling:

  • Carry a transplant by the root ball or container. Do not lift from the trunk.
  • Cover and cushion the plant to protect it from wind and sun during transport from the nursery to planting site.
  • Cut away the container from a container-grown tree or shrub before planting. Do not pull the plant from the container.
  • Carefully untangle girdled roots, or use a serrated knife to cut a few slices from the top of the root ball down in root-bound plants.
  • Do not drop a transplant into the planting hole; instead, carefully place it so the trunk is upright.
  • Dig a planting hole wide enough for the roots to fit without bending (see Mistake No. 5).
  • Wrap the trunks of newly transplanted trees in winter with light-colored tree-wrapping material to prevent sunscald.

Mistake No. 7: Too much TLC.
It might be your tendency to mother a newly planted tree or shrub, but this could do more harm than good. Other than providing adequate moisture and a layer of mulch (avoiding contact with the trunk), little needs to be done after planting. Only stake or guy a tree if it’s located in a high-wind area and is therefore unstable. Some horticulturists advise not fertilizing right away, as the nitrogen could burn the young plant, but you can perform a soil test after transplanting to determine the tree or shrub’s nutritional needs. It’s safe to apply a water-soluble or slow-release fertilizer after one year and to reapply every two to three years, but be cautious about fertilizer use in dry periods.


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