Tree Planting “How To”

by: Russell Stringer, Urban Forester for the city of Montgomery

planting a tree

Planting trees at Carver High School

Planting a tree is not really that hard, but if your tree is not planted correctly you will have a sickly specimen that will suffer along for a few years and then expire, wasting your money and effort and giving your neighbors a laugh at your expense.

However, if you plant your tree correctly you will have a beautiful shade tree that will last throughout the life of your grandchildren’s children and beyond.

The Right Tree in the Right Place

You have to do your research when deciding what species of tree you want. Look at the spot you have picked out. Are there power lines overhead? If yes, pick a different spot.

Does your water line or gas line run underneath your spot? Call the utilities and find out. If yes, pick a different spot.

Then research the tree you want. Mature height and spread is what you are going to be interested in. Trust me, this is WAY more important than whether or not the tree flowers and what color it turns in the fall. You have to make sure that the tree will still fit your space when it grows up. If it doesn’t, find a smaller tree that will.

First Things First

It all starts with a healthy, happy tree from a reputable grower. Big box stores are NOT reputable growers. Go to a nursery that primarily makes its money selling trees. Those nurseries make sure to have quality material on hand to sell to you the customer. The junk they can’t sell to you (the discerning customer) they sell to the big box stores. BE A DISCERNING CUSTOMER. (On the flip side, don’t go to a reputable nursery and buy toilet paper. That stuff is much cheaper at a big box store.)

Make sure the tree you are getting has one single stem with smaller branches regularly arranged along that stem (unless you are buying a crape myrtle, that’s a different animal). Check it for broken limbs or a scratched/damaged main stem. You are spending hard earned money on this tree, make sure you are getting a good one.

Once you have the perfect specimen, it’s time to get it planted.

Tree planting diagram

Click to enlarge

Dig A Whole Hole

This is the hardest part of the process if you don’t have an auger (and most of us don’t). Usually your equipment will be a shovel, which means hard labor digging a hole for your tree. Because of the labor involved, most people dig just enough of a hole to wedge their tree in the ground. This ranks really high on the “not good” scale. Ideally, you should dig a hole that is 2 to 3 sizes larger than your tree’s root ball. Once backfilled, this will give your new tree some nice loose soil to grow roots into, making for quicker establishment.

Plant Your Tree

Remove the tree from its container and cut all the girdling roots. These are roots growing around the outside edge of the root ball. If they are not removed, they will continue growing in a circle eventually choking and killing your tree. Cut ALL girdling roots. Make sure to remove any ties or string on the main trunk and branches. Place the tree in the hole, making sure the top of the root ball is a couple of inches above grade.

Backfill around the root ball, working the soil in with your shovel blade slowly as you go. This will remove most air pockets. Don’t try to pack the soil, working it in with your shovel will settle it plenty. Do not cover the top of the root ball with soil. Once you have it settled and straight in its new home, bring the garden hose over and water it in. Go ahead and give it a good soaking, this will remove any remaining air pockets.

Add a 2 inch layer of mulch (but NOT on top of the root ball) and you are done. Whew!


For its first year, your tree will need to be watered once a week. One soaking per week is all that is needed, so long as you water it deep. After that first year it should be well established. If you have drought conditions in the second year, you will want to keep watering it, but otherwise that first year should be enough. As the tree grows, it will need pruning. Prune it using proper pruning techniques (we will cover that another time). Do all this correctly, and in a few short years you will have a happy, healthy, trouble free shade tree that will last through several generations.

And that, friends, is how to correctly plant a tree. Put it in the right place and enjoy it for a lifetime!