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How to Plant a Tree

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

By The Dirt Doctor, Howard Garrett

Edited and adapted by Marshall Grain Co.

When was the last time you planted a tree? Probably never, right?

Trees may look strong and sturdy but they are actually very sensitive. A number of problems can develop if they are not planted correctly to begin with. This article draws on the expertise of The Dirt Doctor, Howard Garrett, who is a certified arborist, along with our own staff experts, on the correct way to plant your tree. You'll also glean some essential tips on what NOT to do.


The first step is to dig the hole the correct size and shape. Before even starting to dig the hole, the actual height of the root ball needs to be established. Most trees, in containers and balled and burlap wrapped, have excess soil on the top of the true root ball. The excess soil needs to be removed.

Now you can measure the width and the depth of the actual root ball. Dig a very wide, rough-sided hole, 2 to 3 times wider than the tree ball, especially at the soil surface. Square-shaped holes also work. The point is to have well aerated soil around the new root ball and to prevent the roots from circling in the hole.

Digging a small, smooth-sided hole is the worst thing you can do. The width of the bottom of the hole isn't as important as the top of the hole. The depth of the hole should be slightly less than the height of the ball. Measure don't guess.

The worst way to dig a tree hole - small and round. Holes dug with augers are worse than those dug with shovels.

Planting a tree

The top of the root ball should be sticking out of the ground about 2 inches after planting. The bottom of the root ball should be sitting on firm undisturbed soil.

When you over-dig and have to put backfill under the ball, the tree can settle. THIS CAN RESULT IN THE ROOT FLARE BEING TOO DEEP IN THE GROUND. If fill under the ball is unavoidable, tamp the soil to compact it before planting. It's best to set trees and other woody plants 2 to 3 inches higher than ground level (even higher with larger root balls) to allow for settling and/or being planted too low. One of the results of planting in a small, smooth-sided hole.


A percolation test, or perk test, is a way to evaluate the absorption rate and/or drainage of the soil.

When time allows, after digging the hole and before the tree is planted, fill the hole with water and wait until the next day. If the water level does not substantially drain away overnight, a drainage problem that would negatively affect most trees is indicated. For wet soil-adapted trees like bald cypress and willows, this procedure isn't necessary.

Positive drainage is critical, so do not shortcut this step. For soils where the water doesn't drain away well, spraying the sides of the holes with 3% - 5% hydrogen peroxide will help initial root establishment. Hydrogen peroxide is especially good for tree holes dug in hard clay soils. It loosens the wall of the hole and creates a more receptive surface for the tree roots to enter.

Planting Tip:

Marshall Grain Co.'s Landscape Design & Installation services includes solutions for Drainage and Erosion Control problems.


Most trees are planted too deep in the ground. The root flare is part of the trunk and should be placed above ground. Remove burlap and any excess soil and mulch from the surface to expose the true top of the ball. The top of the root ball should be slightly higher than ground grade.


Remove the excess soil from the top of the root ball and loosen roots to eliminate circling. Place the tree in the center of the hole, making sure that the top of the ball is slightly higher than the surrounding grade. Backfill with the soil that was removed from the hole. This is a critical point. Do not add sand, foreign soil, organic matter or fertilizer into the backfill. The roots need to start growing in the native soil from the beginning. When the hole is dug in solid rock, topsoil from the same area should be used. Some native rock mixed into the backfill is beneficial. 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.

Planting a tree

When planting balled and burlap wrapped plants, leave burlap on the sides of the ball after planting, but loosen at the trunk and remove the burlap from the top of the ball. Remove any nylon or plastic covering or string, since these materials do not decompose and can girdle the trunk and roots as the plant grows.

Any wire mesh should be removed to avoid root girdling because wire does not break down very fast.

When planting from plastic containers, carefully remove plants and tear the outside roots if they have grown solidly against the container. Never leave plants in containers. Bare-rooted, balled and burlap wrapped plants, as well as container plant materials should be planted the same way. When planting bare-rooted plants, it is critical to keep the roots moist during the transportation and planting process.


Water the backfill very carefully, making sure to get rid of all air pockets. Do not tamp the soil or air pockets will be formed and roots will be killed in these spots.


Staking and guying is usually unnecessary if the tree has been planted properly with the proper earth ball size of at least 9 inch of ball for each inch of trunk diameter. In rare circumstances (sandy soil, tall evergreen trees, etc.) where the 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 eye bolts screwed into the trunk. Staking should only be done as a last resort - it is unsightly, expensive, adds to mowing and trimming costs, and restricts the tree's ability to develop tensile strength in the trunk and trunk diameter. It can also cause damage to the cambium layer. Remove all tags.


It is very bad advice to prune at planting time to compensate for the loss of roots during transplanting or planting. Most trees fare much better if all the limbs and foliage are left intact. The more foliage there is, the more food that can be produced to build the root system. Even low limbs and foliage should be left on the tree for at least two growing seasons to aid root development. The health of the root system is the key to the overall health of the tree. Plants purchased in containers definitely need no pruning, and deciduous trees never need to be thinned.


Mulch the top of the ball after planting with 1 inch of compost and then 3 inches of mulch tapering to zero inches at the tree trunk. This step is important in lawn areas or in beds. Do not plant grass over the tree ball until the tree is established.

Mulch around trees

Mulch damage


Keep the root zone of the tree moist (but not soggy) until roots are fully established. After establishment, water deeply but infrequently. Don’t forget to take into a count rainfall and general weather conditions. As an approximate guideline, water 2x weekly when temperatures are below 80° F; 3x weekly when temperatures are between 80° F and 100° F; and 4x weekly when above 100°F. When in doubt, check the soil down to a depth of at least 3 inches for moisture retention.


Fertilize annually with a high quality organic tree fertilizer such as Garrett Juice Tree Tonic or Green Tree Elixir. Never use fertilizer stakes. These can cause Nitrogen burning of the roots. Maintain a 2-3 inch layer of mulch around the root zone of the tree. Never mound mulch or compost against the trunk of the tree. Always leave at least a 3-inch clearance around the base of the trunk.

Organic fertilizer

Save Yourself the Labor

Marshall Grain Co. offers a special tree planting service that can give you the peace of mind that your tree has been professionally planted. Our service includes a one-year warranty. Give us a call, visit our website or stop by the store for more information.


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