soil prep with compost prior to tree planting (126347 bytes)

 Do Your Homework Before Planting Trees

By Rebecca Fitzpatrick, Colorado Master GardenerSM, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Denver County

Trees can be a big investment.

Do your homework and pick out an appropriate tree for the planting site. Think about how fast the tree grows, how big it will get, how much water it needs, whether it bears flowers and fruits and how susceptible it is to certain pests or diseases. This is a relationship! Ask yourself how well your tree's needs match yours.

Prepare the soil before planting by adding organic materials, such as compost or composted manure. Spread the organic matter about an inch thick, then dig it into the soil to a 12" depth.

The best time to plant trees is in early spring, though in the fall is fine, too. In any case, avoid planting just as trees are breaking bud and putting on soft new growth. Container stock can be planted all season but it also is most risky at budbreak. If you plant in the fall, do so no later than mid-October.

When planting balled and burlapped trees, dig a dish-shaped hole 3 to 5 times wider than the root ball. Plant shallow in clay soils so oxygen can reach the roots. In sandy soils, the hole should be no deeper than the root ball. Place the plant on firm soil at the center of the hole. Remove all materials wrapped around the top and sides of the root ball. Use a wire cutter to remove at least the top two-thirds of wire baskets. Backfill the hole and water slowly.

For container stock, dig the hole slightly larger than the tree's pot. If, after removing the plant from its container, you see a tangled mass of encircling roots, use a sharp knife to make 4 or 5 cuts, a half-inch deep, up and down the ball. If most of the roots are at the bottom of the ball, use a sharp spade to split the root ball all the way through, halfway up from the bottom. Spread the two halves over a mound of soil in the planting hole. Backfill and water immediately. Container stock that is not pot-bound with roots requires no special treatment.

Other tips for tree-planting success include:

  • Use loose mulch 3 or 4 inches deep on top of the soil in the planting area, but keep the mulch 12 inches away from the trunk.
  • Don't fertilize until the second growing season.
  • Avoid light, frequent watering. Water less often but deeper. Don't forget to water in winter.
  • Until the tree is well established, prune only as necessary. Leave the bottom branches; they are the closest food energy source for your tree.
  • If guying is necessary, use cloth straps 2 to 3 inches wide, tied to stakes. Avoid wire and hose guying; it can injure the trunk and girdle growth. Remove guys after 2 or 3 years.
  • Protect thin-barked trees from sunscald in the winter by using a crepe-type tree wrap. Use only for the first two years and only between the months of November and April.

Photograph courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010