By Dr. Mercola
Having trees around your home can provide you and your community with a number of benefits.
According to Arborday.org, trees around your home can increase your property value by more than 15 percent and improve your odds of a sale.
Trees also do the following wonderful things for you and the environment:
- Decrease carbon dioxide and increase oxygen levels in the atmosphere
- Improve water quality and reduce erosion
- Give songbirds a home, and provide food for all kinds of wildlife
- Provide shade in summer and a windbreak in winter, thereby reducing your cooling and heating costs
- Beautifying your home and neighborhood, and adding curb appeal
How to Properly Plant a Tree
If you want to plant some trees but are not sure how to go about it, organic arborist and author Howard Garrett (aka, the Dirt Doctor) can end your ambivalence with his simple, straightforward steps to tree planting. Planting a tree the right way involves six basic steps:
- Dig a wide rough-sided hole
- Run a "perk test" for drainage
- Prepare the root ball
- Set the root ball in the hole with backfilled soil
- Settle the soil with water
- Mulch the surface
According to Garrett, almost all trees planted today are being planted incorrectly. The most serious problem is that they are planted too deep. When the top of the root ball and the root flare are buried under the ground, hidden roots can circle and "girdle" the trunk, choking off nutrients and weakening the tree, which makes it susceptible to blowing over. Another problem is, when soil comes up too high on a trunk, the covered bark tissue stays moist all the time and plant growth is dramatically slowed or even stopped.
"Trees that are too deep can be uncovered with an Air Spade [a professional tool] or by hand, but the best solution is to plant trees correctly in the first place."
He also does not recommend staking, wrapping trunks or using other unnecessary and damaging techniques.
When is the Ideal Time to Plant Your Tree?
Fall is a great time to plant trees due to moderate temperatures and rainfall allowing them to acclimatize and grow strong roots before the heat and dryness of summer. Springtime planting works well too, depending on your region. So grab your garden tools and a handsome young tree, and let's get this party started!
Digging the Right Sized Hole: Measure Twice, Dig Once
Since your hole should be dug to exactly the same depth as the height of your root ball, make your life easy and actually measure the root ball. Never plant a tree in slick-sided or glazed holes, such as those created by a tree spade or auger, unless the slick sides are destroyed during planting. Holes with glazed sides can prevent your tree's roots from penetrating the surrounding soil and can cause circling roots and improper root development.
The next step is to evaluate your drainage.
The Perks of Good Drainage
Good drainage is critical, so please do not skip this step. Simply fill the hole with water and wait until the next day. If the water level does not drain away overnight, you have a drainage problem. In this case, you might want to either choose another site, or add some additional drainage.
One method that sometimes works is PVC drain line set in gravel running from the hole to a lower point on the site. Or, install a pier hole dug down from the bottom of the hole into a different soil type and filled with gravel. Once you know your tree has adequate drainage, you are then ready to prepare the roots for planting.
Root Ball Preparation
If your tree is wrapped in burlap, you'll want to leave the burlap on the sides of the ball for planting, but loosen the burlap at the trunk and remove it from the top of the ball. Remove any nylon twine or plastic covering, string, or wire mesh, since these materials do not decompose and can girdle the tree's trunk and roots as it grows.
If your tree is in a plastic container, carefully remove it from that pot, cutting the pot off if necessary. If the roots have grown solidly against the sides of the container, use a sharp garden knife to tear through the outside roots so they can more easily spread outward from the root ball into the surrounding soil. You should have at least nine inches of root ball for each one inch of trunk diameter. If your tree is in soil, use a spade or a brush to remove excess soil from the top of the root ball, as well as the "bird's nest" of circling roots.
This is very important for the long-term health of your tree. If your tree is a bare-root specimen, it is critical to keep the roots moist during the transportation and planting process. Now you're ready to set your little tree into the ground!
Set in Place, and Backfill with Existing Soil
Place the root ball into the hole, backfilling it with the soil you dug out—some existing rocks included are okay. You don't need to add sand, foreign soil, organic matter, or fertilizer—the roots need the native soil from the beginning.
According to the Dirt Doctor:
"Adding amendments such as peat moss, sand or foreign soils to the backfill not only wastes money, but is detrimental to the tree. Putting gravel in the bottom of the hole is a total waste of money."
Make sure you have not planted the tree too deeply. You should see the entire trunk above soil level, including the "root flare," which is actually part of the trunk. It's better to plant the tree too shallow than too deep, because there will be some settling, and you don't want the roots to be deprived of circulating air.
NO STOMPING! Just Water, Water, Water
To settle the soil, don't stomp on it—you're not making wine. Stepping on the soil will create air pockets, and the roots will die in these areas. Instead, use water—and lots of it.
Thank You Very Mulch
The final step in this labor of love is to mulch the tree. Add about one inch of compost and three inches of mulch on top of that, such as shredded cedar, tapering to zero inches at the trunk. In other words, as you get farther from the trunk, the mulch gets deeper.
Never plant grass over the tree ball until the tree is established. Make sure to remove any tags.
What NOT to Do
As I mentioned in the beginning, there are several things NOT to do to your tree during planting.
- Wrapping: Trunks of newly planted trees should not be wrapped. Wrapping looks unattractive, harbors insects, and leaves the bark weak when the wrap is removed. Garrett compares tree wrapping to a bandage left on your finger too long. If sunburn is a concern, it is much better to paint the trunk with a diluted latex paint that matches the color of the bark, or white.
- Staking: If your tree's root ball is the proper size, staking is unnecessary and a waste of time and money, as well as being detrimental to the tree because it restricts the tree's natural ability to develop a strong trunk. It can also cause damage to the cambium layer, which is responsible for wound healing.
Only in rare circumstances (sandy soil, tall evergreen trees, etc.) will staking be of any benefit, and only temporarily and as a last resort. If your tree needs to be staked for a while, connect the guy wires as low on the trunk as possible and remove the stakes as soon as possible—never leave them on more than one growing season. Temporary staking should be done with strong wire and metal eyebolts screwed into the trunk.
- Pruning: Most trees fare much better if all the limbs and foliage are left intact. Your new tree needs ALL those branches, and the leaves they bear, to gather the nutrients it needs to build a strong root system, which is the key to your tree's overall health. Even low limbs and foliage should be left on your tree for at least two growing seasons.
The only trees that seem to respond positively to thinning at the time of transplanting are field-collected live oak, yaupon holly and a few other evergreens. Plants purchased in containers are best left unpruned, and deciduous trees should never be pruned. The only pruning should be dead limbs, limbs that are crossing and damaging a larger limb, and weakest of any co-dominant limbs. Co-dominant limbs grow close together in the same direction and inch together with age causing weak convections and decay.
Are you interested in growing a tree from seed? If so, take a look at Howard Garrett's video about how you can do this. He also has an article on natural, organic tree care you might find helpful in caring for your new tree. It seems appropriate to end with a nice quote from Howard Garrett that seems to reflect the respect and admiration he has for trees:
"People don't grow trees. Trees grow in spite of people. For the most part, trees are tough, durable and easy to plant and transplant if treated in a sensible and natural way."