Dig a hole, plant the tree and cover it back up. Sounds easy, but is it really that simple? What is the best way to plant a tree to get the best odds at success? Success meaning long-term survival. When digging the hole, use a shovel and not an auger. Augers can create holes that are too deep and sides that are “glazed.” With our clay soils, it will be like planting a tree in a cereal bowl. How long will it live?

It may live awhile, but this is not a good idea for long-term success. Leave the augers for fence posts and ice fishing.

Back to the digging. The depth is probably the most important step.

Dig only as deep as the soil level in the container, or depth of root ball size and no more. If you dig too deep, (such as above with the auger), you will have to fill in the hole with more dirt before planting.

Guess what happens the first time it is watered…thump, it sinks or settles! This is now a low spot and potentially a slow death for the tree. So, only dig as deep as is necessary.

As far as width, go big! We like to see the width two to three times as wide as the container or root ball. This creates loose soil, oxygen and some easy growing for the roots.

Now that the hole is dug, let’s get the tree ready.

With container trees, loosen up the roots. This can be done with a shovel, knife or by hand. Don’t worry about breaking roots. We want to prevent and discourage any circling and allow those roots to grow outward.

With Ball & Burlap (B&B) trees, we need to remove the wire basket and burlap. This is very important. Snip the basket off and then roll or set the tree into the hole. Because you dug extra wide, you now have room to reach down the sides and cut off the burlap. With this process, you will remove 90 percent or more of the burlap. Do not worry about the little bit of burlap at the bottom. It should rot away, and you might cause more damage trying to yank the burlap out from under the bottom of the ball. You will not have to score or loosen up roots on a B&B tree.

It’s now time to back fill around the tree. With our tough clay soils, we like to amend the native soil with a little bit of compost. Mix about one-third compost to the native soils and start backfilling. Give your new tree a good soaking and apply 2-3 inches of mulch. Keep the mulch off of the trunk of the tree; a good three- to six-foot circle around the tree is just right.

This final step of mulch keeps the ground cool, weeds out and mowers and weed eaters away. Any wood-based mulch should do the trick. Now go out there and plant a tree!


Keith Kershaw is co-owner of Landon’s Greenhouse, an ISA certified arborist and horticulturist.