Thank you for your interest in adding trees to your yard or garden! Trees are incredibly majestic and rewarding plants to grow. Whether your intention is to provide shade, privacy, or edible fruit – you can’t go wrong! By planting a tree in your space, you are fostering life, sequestering carbon, and providing habitat for local wildlife! They are literally the “lungs of the earth”, and one of our favorite components in the garden. So much so, we have planted over 20 trees on our modest ~ 9,000 square foot property!
Let’s dig into the best practices for planting trees – to set them up for success, promote healthy growth, and prevent transplant shock. We’ll explore the best time of year to plant trees, tips for choosing where to plant them in your garden, and go over the step-by-step process of planting a tree – including hole size, soil, fertilizer, and more! I will also provide some recommendations for how to care for a young tree, and how to protect them from burrowing pests, like gophers!
Are you still trying to decide what type of trees to plant? Then check out: “How to Choose the Best Fruit or Ornamental Trees to Plant: Climate, Varieties & More”. This article covers common fruit tree requirements such as chill hours and cross-pollination, examples of trees suitable for every growing zone, and other considerations to take when selecting the best tree for your garden and location! I also touch on choosing the right kind of trees to grow in containers.
Today’s tutorial will be focused on planting trees in the ground. I will follow up with an article about planting trees in containers very soon! Because they do need a little different care and consideration.
Ready to start digging?
When is the Best Time of Year to Plant a Tree?
The “best time” of year to plant a tree is going to vary, and depend on many factors! These include where you live (your growing zone), the type of tree you are planting, and also the style of the tree. For example:
- Bare root fruit trees are commonly sold or shipped in their dormant stage during late winter to early spring, and should be planted then.
- If you experience a “real” winter in your area, most fruit trees should be planted in the spring. This gives them more time to get comfy, before it gets nasty out. Remember to choose varieties suited for your zone!
- On the other hand, the most commonly recommended time of year for planting ornamental trees like maples, pines, or other evergreens is during the fall.
- Fall is also an ideal planting time for fruit trees in areas with mild or warmer winter climates – such as Florida, Coastal or Southern California, and Hawaii.
As you can see, this is going to require a little bit of research and a judgment call on your part! Look into the specific type of tree you’re planting. If you are still feeling confused or conflicted, talk to the staff at your local nursery or garden center! They should be more than happy to help and share their local knowledge.
Why Does the Time of Year Matter?
No matter the time of year you choose to plant a tree, it is best to avoid extreme weather – at the time of planting, or on the near horizon. The goal is to allow the plant time to get established during temperate conditions, which helps prevent shock, stress, or possible death!
For fall planting, aim for late August, September, or October. Wait until the hottest, harshest part of summer has passed and the weather begins to cool – but well before the ground freezes. That is, if it does freeze where you are. With these conditions, the tree can focus on establishing its roots rather than spending energy on new leaf, flower, or fruit development as it would during spring time. The stronger the root system, the bigger and healthier the tree! Water and energy demands are also generally lower in the fall. Those are some of the biggest perks of fall planting.
During the springtime, local nurseries often carry a larger selection of trees to choose from! Because spring-planted trees will be putting energy into both root and leaf/bud development, keep in mind that the tree may need a bit of extra water, compost, mulch, and time to get settled in. This is particularly true if you have hot summer weather.
To be honest, we plant trees whenever we feel like it, so we have done a bit of both – with great success! Our climate here on the Central Coast of California doesn’t get frost or freezing in the winter, nor extreme heat during summer, so we have a great deal of flexibility when it comes to planting trees compared to most other locations.
HOW TO PLANT A TREE
Step 1: Choose a Location to Plant the Tree
First of all, look around your space and evaluate where a tree would be most happy. We want to set these guys up for success, right? For the majority of trees, that means a location that is mostly sunny, and has room to grow. However, while important, it isn’t just about the trees wants and needs. We want to make sure that you are happy with the trees location too! Don’t just plop a tree down in your yard without taking a moment to consider the long-term implications!
What will this tree look like in 10 years? How about 20 years? 30 years from now? If you plan to be in your home for a while, then you need to ask yourself these questions. What is the average size of the tree you’re planting? How fast will it grow? Will it potentially shade out your yard, blocking the sun to your garden? How about its root system? Are they super invasive, risking damage to nearby structures or water lines? Additionally, does it tend to sprawl and spread, or stay more tight and upright?
If you want to avoid casting too much shade on the rest of your garden, locate large trees carefully. If you live in the northern hemisphere, planting them on the north side of your yard will ensure they cast as little shade as possible, as the sun sinks lower on the southern horizon much of the year. This is called a “south-facing” orientation. Keeping smaller trees in the middle of a yard and larger ones closer to walls, fences, or other tall perimeter objects also accomplishes the same goal.
Step 2: Dig A Hole for the Tree
Duh, right? But before you start digging, make sure you are aware if there are any utility lines such as gas, electric, or water nearby. Then, put on work gloves, grab your favorite shovel, and get to work! If you aren’t able to dig the hole yourself, don’t be afraid to ask for help! Call on some family, friends, colleagues, or a neighbor that can assist you. Our local nursery even offers a tree delivery and planting service!
The general rule of thumb is to dig a hole that is approximately two to three times wider than the size of the trees current container or root ball. Experts say to not dig much deeper than the container or root ball, and allow it to sit on “undisturbed soil” and prevent settling. If you accidentally dig a little too deep, it isn’t the end of the world. Because our native soil is silty and poor, we often dig our holes a few inches deeper than the container. That way, we can fill the bottom of the hole with higher quality soil for the root ball to sit on – packing it lightly, to prevent undesirable sinking later.
Step 3: Add a Gopher Basket (Optional)
Only proceed with this step if you are planting fruit trees in an area with a known gopher issue, like most of our garden. This goes for voles and moles too! Gophers love chewing on pretty much all vegetation, but seem particularly drawn to the tender root systems of young fruit trees. They can easily kill them in the process! If your garden has only a mild to moderate issue with gophers, you could choose to experiment and skip a gopher basket. See what happens! After some trial and error here, we have realized that most of our fruit trees need baskets to be safe – especially fig trees, which we have several of!
What is a Gopher Basket, Exactly?
Gopher baskets are made of wire material, designed to prevent access and chewing by burrowing pests. They are buried with the tree, surrounding its root ball on the sides and bottom. You can purchase pre-made gopher baskets, or make your own! We usually make ours. Essentially, we create a wire cylinder of the desired size and height, securing it with wire and/or zip ties. Then, we cut and add a bottom piece, attaching it to the cylinder. Make sure there aren’t any gaps, and choose a wire with 3/4″ holes or smaller.
Ideally, a gopher basket should be several inches larger than the tree root ball in all directions. Depending on the material the gopher basket is made of, it may degrade with time – which allows the roots to escape, but also leaves the tree potentially vulnerable. As a tree matures, it is usually less susceptible and attractive to gophers, so it may be okay! Many pre-made baskets or DIY baskets constructed with chicken wire will eventually break down.
On the other hand, we typically make our large gopher baskets from hardware cloth, which doesn’t degrade. That means that as the tree grows, the basket may restrict the trees roots very slightly. Most of the trees we plant are dwarf varieties, or ones we hope to keep on the smaller side anyways, so we are totally okay with that possibility. Roots will grow through the holes in the wire, but it leaves the core root ball protected!
After you obtain or construct a gopher basket, add it to your hole. The upper rim of the basket should stick up at least an inch or two above ground level. This is to prevent those furry, rat-tooth little jerks from popping up, over, and into the basket.
Step 4: Place Your Tree in the Hole
Before we remove the tree from its nursery container, we like to set the potted tree inside the hole to make sure everything is looking good. After being planted, the top of the root ball and base of the tree trunk should sit just slightly higher than ground level. Assess your hole depth, and adjust by adding or removing more soil if needed.
There are a few ways you can go about removing the tree from its pot. No matter how you do it, do not pull up on the tree trunk to get it out! You may need to massage the container a bit to loosen the roots and soil. A smaller tree can be carefully tipped sideways or even upside down, and gently eased out of the pot.
For larger, difficult-to-maneuver trees, we have learned a nifty trick! Cut the plastic pot away! Sure, you can’t reuse the pot this way, but it vastly reduces the risk of accidentally damaging or shocking the tree. Using strong scissors or shears, carefully cut the bottom of the pot off first. Then set the tree inside the hole. Next, cut down along the side of the remaining pot from top to bottom. Boom! Now you can just peel that sucker away.
Ensure the root ball is centered in the planting hole, and is still at the desired height. If roots are bound and circling around themselves, carefully loosen or cut those ones only, but otherwise try to leave the root ball as undisturbed as possible. Also check to see that the tree is standing straight, and that the main branches are pointing the direction you prefer.
Step 5: Add Soil Around the Tree
Over time, the recommendation for amending soil (or not) when planting trees has evolved. Experts currently say that we should simply backfill the hole with native soil, which encourages the tree to spread into the surrounding similar native soil. The one caveat here is the condition and quality of your native soil… In general, young trees will prefer loose, balanced, modestly rich, well-draining soil. If your soil is pretty decent, backfill away!
Yet if your soil is overly clayey, silty, sandy, super rocky, or otherwise less-than-ideal soil (like ours is), you may want to consider adding some rich organic matter such as compost and quality bagged soil into the hole. We always do – but still mix it about 50-50 with the native soil!
As you add soil to the hole around the root ball, gently pack the soil into place. Avoid densely compacting it, but fill any voids and pat it down a bit to prevent excessive settling in the future. Check that the tree is still standing straight as you go.
Fill the area to about the same level of the root ball, or just below. Do not bury the tree trunk! New soil or mulch touching the trunk may cause rot or disease. Next, use your soil to create a bit of a berm in a circle around the base of the tree. This is designed to prevent runoff when you are watering, and direct the water to the base of the tree instead.
What about fertilizer?
Do not apply traditional fertilizer to the root ball or planting hole, as it may shock, “burn”, or even kill the tree!
We do like to add some mild micronutrients to the perimeter of the planting hole, away from the exposed root ball itself. The things we add are very gentle and slow-release, intended to primarily enrich the soil around the tree, encouraging its growth in the future. Again, our native soil is rather sad and devoid of life. For example, we add basalt rock dust and kelp meal for trace minerals. We also like to add worm castings from our worm compost bin. Finally, we toss in a few earthworms (European night crawlers) around the base of all our trees. Those guys will dive deep to continually enrich, aerate, and improve the soil with time!
Rather than adding fertilizer at the time of planting, wait to feed the tree until it is well established – at least 8 to 12 months after planting. Even then, we like to play it safe and use mild, slow-release fertilizers that do not risk burning the tree. When space allows, we like to grow fava beans or other nitrogen-fixing cover crops around the wider perimeter of the tree. Those plants help to draw nitrogen into their roots, naturally enriching the soil in that area. Furthermore, as the tree grows, we continue to add mulch that feeds the soil. For example, chopped-up fava bean plants, comfrey, borage, compost, and other nutrient-rich organic matter.
Step 6: Mulch Your Tree
Tuck in your newly planted tree with a cozy little comfort blanket! Mulch makes trees happy. It helps prevent runoff, improves soil conditions, and promotes moisture retention. Add a 2 to 4-inch deep layer of mulch to the top of the soil around the base of the tree, extending at least a couple feet in all directions from the trunk. We typically use small redwood or cedar bark mulch. Other excellent mulch options include leaf litter, pine needles, wood chips, compost, or other organic matter. As with the soil, avoid placing mulch directly against the tree trunk.
Step 7: Water Well
Immediately after planting your new tree, give it a nice long, deep drink. Now is a great time to grab one for yourself too! Wet the entire area that you have dug and disturbed. Allow the water to saturate slowly, and deep enough to reach beyond the bottom of the planting hole – particularly if the soil was dry from the start.
For the first year after planting, young trees will do best if they’re watered well once every 7 to 10 days. The goal is to keep the soil moist, but not soggy. Adjust your watering schedule according to the weather as needed, increasing the frequency in extreme heat. If you’re lucky, rain will reduce your need to water at all during some months! All of our trees are hooked up with automatic drip irrigation and micro-sprinklers that do the work for us. If you need more tips on garden irrigation solutions, check out this article!
Step 8: Provide Support
Not all newly-planted trees will need staking, depending on their size, structure, and location. A little bit of wind and movement can actually help strengthen a plant! However, if the tree is spindly, weak, or your area is prone to high winds or nasty weather, definitely plan on giving it some support. Staking a tree can also help you train it to grow more straight or in a desired direction.
Many trees will come already staked in the center, and you can simply leave it in place. Or, you can choose to provide stakes on two sides of the tree. Once the tree has been in place for a year or two, feel free to remove any stakes.
When attaching the tree to a stake, use a soft tie that will not cut into the trunk. Also, keep it pulled tight in the desired direction, but not tightly wrapped around the trunk itself. Give it room to grow! You can purchase rubber tree ties, or use something like this wide garden velcro – which is what we use!
Step 9: Aloe Vera Treat (Optional)
Full disclosure: we spoil our plants. After a new tree is planted, we like to give them a special treat – an aloe vera soil drench! Aloe vera contains plant hormones that help stimulate new root growth, aid in seed germination, and can ease or prevent transplant shock. It also contains a plethora of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and micronutrients that gently feed the plant, and promote resilience and disease resistance! Aloe is so awesome, I wrote an article all about it! If you want to learn more about the amazing benefits of aloe vera, how to grow it, and how to use it to feed other plants, click here!
To create an aloe vera soil drench, simply blend whole fresh aloe vera leaves with water, then water the tree with it! We usually grab about 3-5 aloe vera leaves, blend them in water, and then dilute that full blender into a 5-gallon bucket of water. A little aloe goes a long way! If you do not have fresh aloe vera, you can also use freeze-dried aloe vera powder. We treat almost all of our plants with aloe at some point in their life, not just the trees.
Step 10: Throw Your Tree A Welcome-Home Party
You probably think I am kidding here, right? Well, take it as you wish, but we totally do this! I am convinced it is good luck. They are a new member of the family and homestead, after all! After planting a tree, we love nothing more than to grab a festive beverage, turn on some feel-good music, and spend the evening in the garden, admiring our new friend – and hard work!
Welcome home, new tree!
If you follow these steps, the new tree in your life should be very happy, healthy, and fruitful under your loving care. I hope you picked up a few helpful tips from this article! I will follow up soon with information about growing trees in containers. Feel free to ask questions below, and share this post! Thank you for tuning in. Happy planting!