Planting Trees

Some would say, ‘spring is for lovers’, but at my garden center, it could be said ‘spring is for planting trees’, because there sure is a lot of tree planting going on.

It’s not every day a gardener plants a tree, so they have to be reminded the step-by-step process in getting the tree into their new home within your landscape. Really it’s no different than quarterback Peyton Manning passing footballs—it’s all in the mechanics. So let’s have a chat about planting trees.

The first order of business is to call One Call of Wyoming, 811, two business days before you dig. A One Call representative will locate known underground utilities on your property. This will keep you safe and your tree even safer.

As dorky as this sounds, before you put a spade in the ground, look up—far too often gardeners plant what’s to become a large shade tree directly underneath power lines. Within a few short years, you will regret planting your tree there.

For most gardeners, a store bought tree will be grown in a container, so we’ll focus on containerized trees, meaning their root ball is grown in the container.

Once the site is determined, dig the planting hole only to the depth that the tree was grown in the container. What’s critical here is do not plant deeper than the root ball. Too often trees planted too deep will not grow well and in some instances die by planting too deep. If you are going to err, err on being shallow rather than deeper.

Next make the planting hole at least two times the width of the root ball. If you’ve got the stamina and the room make the planting hole width even larger. Larger is good.

A common myth with gardeners is that tree roots grow deep into the soil. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure some roots can grow fairly deep but the vast majority will live within the first twelve inches of the soil. By making the planting hole wide, you are giving the tree’s roots the ability to grow out.

Once the hole is dug to these specifications, it’s time to pull the root ball out of the container. More common than not, you will see circling roots where the roots encountered the container. With a pocket knife or even a pruning saw, I want you to cut these circling roots in three or four locations around the root ball. Do the same on the bottom of the root ball.

Wherever you make these cuts, new root hairs will begin to grow outwards into the soil. Not cutting these roots means the tree’s roots will continue this circling behavior. In a few short years these roots will have the potential of girdling itself, effectively strangling the tree.

Once the tree is in the hole, it’s time to backfill the hole. There are several schools of thought regarding backfilling the hole. Some say just use the existing soil only; others, me included, recommend mixing a high quality organic potting soil, 50/50 with the existing soil.

The organic potting soil will help open up clay soils and in sandy soils it will help to retain moisture.
After backfilling about a third of the way, water the soil to get rid of any air pockets. Continue backfilling and watering until all the soil is at the same depth as the soil around it. Use the remainder of the soil to build a watering berm.

That’s it! We’ll continue this discussion in a later article. Here’s to a happy tree planting this spring!

Originally published in the Casper Star-Tribune, May 17, 2015