Tree Planting: 7 Steps to Plant Trees the Right Way

Tree planting can be difficult. If you’re very lucky, you might be able to get away with simply sticking a tree in the ground and calling it a day. But when you know how to plant a tree in the right way, you increase your chances of success.

When Should You Plant Your Tree?

Step 1: Dig Your Hole

Planting at the proper depth is an important part of helping your new tree survive. You want your planting hole to be three times wider than the current size of the root mass. Take care to make sure that the hole is deep enough that the flare of the tree trunk is near the soil level. No part of the flare should be covered with soil.

Step 2: Inspect the Roots

Inspect the roots of the tree you’re about to plant. Are they bound in a circular pattern? If they have started growing in the shape of the container, you must break up the pattern before planting. This is vital. The rootbound tree will likely face a slow death if you place it in the ground as is. At best, its growth will be stunted. It can seem rough, but don’t worry about hurting the roots when breaking them apart. You can even cut some away. This is much better than the alternative, as the constructive pattern will only get worse once the tree is planted. Do what you must to undo the pattern, but don’t go overboard and rough up the plant unnecessarily. In mild cases, you can simply use your nails to scratch across the sides of the root mass. In more severe cases, you can do one of the following:

  • Slice the roots vertically using a pruning saw
  • Cut off the bottom inch of the root ball
  • Pull apart the root mass with your hands

The goal here is to create new opportunities for root development.

Step 3: Plant High

To make sure your hole is at the right depth, take your shovel handle and lay it across the grade. The tree flare should be at or above the handle. When placing your tree in the hole, try to err on the high side. It’s always better to plant slightly high and allow the area to drain away. You can go up to 25% higher than the surrounding soil level. The soil will likely settle, causing the newly planted tree to eventually sink below grade. This, in turn, can lead to root rot or other diseases.

Step 4: Forget About Amending the Soil

TAt this point, traditional tree planting methods would recommend amending the soil. However, new research suggests that amending the soil results in a smaller root system and a less healthy plant. Roots that grow in amended soil are less likely to grow into the harder, native soil. Instead of amending the soil, simply break up the clumps in the native soil, and remove any rocks. The exception here is if you can amend the entire area that the mature roots will eventually grow in.

Step 5: Get Rid Of Any Air Pockets

Getting rid of air pockets helps improve the soil-to-root contact, and reduces the chances of your roots dying. There are a few ways to get rid of air pockets:

  • Tamp the soil around the plant roots
  • Hand-pack the soil around the plant roots
  • Blast backfilled soil with a stiff stream of water

Of these three options, the last is probably the best way. Not only does it help remove air pockets without overly compacting the soil, but it also makes sure that your newly planted tree gets the moisture it needs. You may want to blast the backfilled soil twice: once when you have refilled the hole halfway, and again once you have finished.

Step 6: Mulch

Mulch improves moisture retention, and helps keep roots cool. Both these things are very important to tree planting. You can use any organic matter for mulch. This includes:

  • Shredded leaves/li>
  • Ground bark
  • Nuggets

You will want to add mulch starting from about two inches from the trunk all the way out to the dripline. Generally, the further out you can mulch, the better.

Step 7: Water Deeply and Thoroughly

You need to make sure your newly planted tree gets plenty of water until it is fully established. You want soil that is moist, but not soggy. The secret to proper watering lies in slow and deep irrigation. This ensures that the soil around the roots gets saturated with water. The roots then are able to absorb the moisture, without having to deal with excess runoff. This tree planting step can take anywhere from weeks to months, to even a year or more. Thankfully, this step can be fully automated with soaker horses and drip irrigation. It’s difficult to say how much you should be watering. You need to be careful not to overwater or you risk drowning your tree. Many factors will come into play, including how good your drainage is. Plus, there is no easy way to tell how wet the soil is past the planting hole. The soil may appear dry on the surface, but may actually be very wet just a few inches below. The opposite can be true, as well. As such, the best thing you can do is to pay attention to how the tree responds. Is the tree losing a lot of leaves? It’s normal for trees to lose up to half of their leaves due to transplant stress. But if your tree loses more than half of its leaves, there may be a problem. Are the leaves turning brown, falling off, or drying up, and does the soil look dry? If so, you may need to water more. If the tree is not doing well and you’ve been watering constantly, you might want to water less.

A Note on Fertilizer

It is not advisable to fertilize your trees until they have been fully established. The tree needs to focus all of its energy on root development first.


Having a newly planted tree die on you is heartbreaking. With the above steps, you can plant trees that live long and healthy lives. If you’re still unsure, contact a professional tree service to help you out with tree care and tree planting.