Proper Tree Planting

Jr. Fletcher  |  10/30/2007 1:54:01 AM

Once you determine which plants you want to add to your Louisiana-Friendly Yard, it is time to break ground and start planting. Begin your landscape renewal by putting hardscape, such as walkways, irrigation systems or patios, into place first; then plant trees. Because trees are a more permanent addition to the landscape, site selection and proper planting techniques are essential. (This section is adapted from Dr. Ed Gilman’s Web site, reprinted with permission.)

1. Look up. If a nearby wire, security light or building could interfere with the tree as it grows, find a new planting site.

2. Dig a shallow hole that is as wide as possible. Shallow is better than deep! Many people plant trees too deep. Dig a hole that is 1½ to 3 times the width of the root ball. Use even wider holes for compacted soil and wet sites. Make sure the depth of the hole is slightly LESS than the height of the root ball, especially in compacted or wet soil. If you inadvertently dig the hole too deep, add soil to the bottom of the hole. Break up compacted soil around a newly planted tree to give emerging roots room to expand into loose soil. This will hasten root growth and encourage establishment.

Drip line: the circle that forms at the ends of branches of a tree where water drips off the leaves onto the ground.

Establishment: acclimating a new plant to the environmental conditions of the planting site.

3. Find the point where the topmost root emerges from the trunk. This point is called trunk flare, root flare or root crown and should be within 2 inches of the soil surface. If the topmost root is buried within the root ball, remove enough soil from the top of the root ball so the point where the topmost root emerges from the trunk will be within 2 inches of the soil. Loosen circling roots, especially in the top half of the root ball. Selectively remove small roots that are kinked or circling. If many roots circle the bottom or sides of the root ball, slice the root ball about 1 inch deep in four places (like at the points of a compass) from top to bottom before planting. This reduces the likelihood of roots causing problems later. If you cut large roots, the tree might go into shock and die. The way to avoid having to slice roots is to buy plants that are not root bound. For plants that are not too large to handle, slip them out of the pots at the nursery and inspect the roots. If plants are too heavy to lift, tilt the pot and inspect the roots as much as possible through drainage holes. Sometimes you will be able to see circling roots through the drainage holes.

4. Slide tree carefully into the planting hole. To avoid damaging the tree when placing it in the hole, lift it with straps or rope around the root ball, not by the trunk. Use special strapping mechanisms constructed for carefully lifting trees out of large containers.

5. Position the trunk flare (where the topmost root emerges from the trunk) slightly above the surface of the landscape soil. Most horticulturists agree it is better to plant the tree a little high than to plant it too deep. If the tree is a little too deep, tip it to one side and slide some soil under it; then tip it back the other way and slide some more soil under the root ball. Once the tree is at the appropriate depth, place a small amount of soil around the root ball to stabilize it. Soil amendments are usually of no benefit. The soil removed from the hole usually makes the best backfill, unless it is substandard or contaminated.

6. Straighten the tree in the hole. Before you begin filling the hole with soil, have someone view the tree from two directions perpendicular to each other to confirm that it is straight. Fill in with some more backfill soil to secure the tree in the upright position. Once you add large amounts of soil, it is difficult to reposition the tree.

7. At planting time, remove all synthetic materials from around the trunk and root ball. This includes string, rope, synthetic burlap, strapping, plastic and other materials that won’t decompose in the soil.

8. Fill the planting hole with backfill soil. As you add the soil, slice a shovel down into it 20 to 30 times, all around the tree. Break up clay soil clumps as much as possible. Do NOT step firmly on the backfill soil. This could compact it, restricting root growth, especially in the clay soil. When the planting hole is filled with soil, the root ball should rest 1 inch (small trees) to 3 inches (larger trees) above the backfill soil.

9. Add 10 to 20 gallons of water to the root ball. Fill any air pockets with soil.

10. Cover the backfill soil with mulch. Apply mulch to a minimum 8-foot-diameter circle around the tree, if possible. Do not construct a berm from soil, since this soil could end up over the root ball several months later. Water the mulch well after spreading.

11. Stake the tree, if necessary. Staking holds the root ball firmly in the soil. If the tree moves in the wind, the root ball may shift, and emerging roots could break or the plant could fall over. Young trees might require staking until enough trunk strength develops. Remove staking materials after the tree becomes established. If not removed, ties and stakes can girdle a tree, which can kill it.

Berm: a raised earthen area.
Girdle: to constrict or destroy the bark in a ring around the trunk or branch of a plant, cutting off flow of nutrients and water through the bark; ultimately, the plant dies.

12. Water trees frequently so roots fully establish. Light, frequent irrigation fosters the quickest establishment for trees. Following the initial few months of frequent irrigation, water weekly until plants are fully established. At each watering, apply about one gallon to two gallons of water per inch of trunk diameter (i.e., two gallons to four gallons for a 2-inch tree). Never water if the root ball is saturated. In Louisiana, trees typically require about three months per inch of trunk diameter to become established but could take longer depending on climate, watering schedule and species. Fertilizing during the establishment period doesn’t improve survival rates.

Watering Schedule

To establish a 1-gallon-size plant with average water requirements:
Week 1. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . water daily
Weeks 2-3. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. water every two days
Weeks 4-6. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  .water twice per week
Weeks 7-12. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . water once per week

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