A brief instructional video on proper tree planting – provided by Organic Approach
The first step in planting a new tree is selecting a good specimen. When you are at the nursery, don’t be shy. Inspect the stock. Make sure that tags aren’t too tight, look for disease/pest activity, and see if the staff will allow you to reveal the root ball a bit to make sure there aren’t any serious girdling issues. Got a good specimen? Great. Go plant it. Every once in a while though you get stuck with a real fixer-upper, but the challenge of getting these trees established and happy isn’t as great as it may seem as long as the right techniques are applied. All you have to do is minimize stress, get it in the ground, and let nature do the rest.
1. Dig. A. Hole.
Set the pot or the root ball on the ground where the tree will ultimately reside and score or otherwise mark out a circle at least 8-10” outside of it. Allow yourself enough room to be able to comfortably reach into the hole and have room to work once the ball is placed.
Remove sod with a flat blade “stinger” style shovel if there is turf present and set it aside.
Dig the hole for the root ball, starting in the center and working toward the edges. This will reduce fatigue because the earth can tumble in toward the loose center as you go. This is especially helpful if you are planting more than one tree. Set the native soil aside for later.
Wide and shallow is better than tight and deep when it comes to a planting hole. You can always go deeper later. Overestimate and you will create more work for yourself.
2. Prepare the root ball.
First carefully remove the pot/burlap/cage from the root ball. Remove any tags from stems. Even tags made of light material can cut off a plants vasculature like a girdling root if left on.
Take your hands over the whole ball to loosen it up. Gently remove excess soil/planting media from the periphery of the root ball to expose the roots, especially from the top nearest the root flare (“bare the flare”). Exposing some of the smaller roots allows us to reduce compaction and memory in the ball. This process will also reveal any girdling roots if the specimen is pot bound.
At this time, if there are girdling roots, they may need to be pruned out. This should be done selectively so as not to overstress the plant, however, some surgery can be required with a worse specimen. This process can be abbreviated or entirely avoided if the stock is inspected carefully before purchase!
3. Plant it.
Once your hole and your tree are prepared, set the tree in the hole. Make sure that the tree is resting at the appropriate depth. Do not ever bury the root flare. The top of the root ball and base of the stem should be slightly above ground level. Make corrections at this time with native soil if the hole is too shallow or deep. Minimize fertilizer and sterile media and maximize the amount of native soil that you use during backfill. This will encourage lateral root run by forcing your young tree to get acquainted with its environment.
Add just enough native soil in the bottom of the hole to keep the tree upright without extra support so you can take a step back and get some perspective. Work your way around the tree from different angles, checking the plum of the tree with your eye. This takes a bit of practice, but if you draw an imaginary line between the root flare and the dominant apical leader and use that as a guide, you’ll be off to a good start.
Once you’ve got the tree in a satisfactory position, begin backfilling the hole with native soil in “lifts” of 2-4 inch depths. If you are using a transplant pack containing mycorrhizae or other biostimulants, this should be sprinkled in with every lift in compliance with the product label rates. Mycorrhizae require root contact. Lightly tamp each lift with your hands or a shovel handle as you go. Backfilling in lifts allows for even soil density throughout, minimizing settling after the job is complete. Lift filling also allows for minor plum corrections as you work.
Add a nice ring of mulch 4-6” deep to insulate the young tree while it gets established. Do not let any mulch touch your root flare or stem. Mulch up against your tree will increase the likelihood of disease and rot. Try to achieve a donut shape, and the mulch will serve its intended purpose.
5. Stand back and admire your work.
You’ve done it. You’ve planted a tree. Your planet thanks you. Now, go do another.