After you’ve conceptualized your finished yard, it’s time to buy and plant your tree! It may only take a few hours to transplant a tree, but the process often determines whether or not the tree will be successful.
Using quality plants and following up with good tree care practices, such as watering, pruning, and fertilizing, are not enough to save a poorly planted tree. Follow the proper recommendations (below) to ensure a healthy and viable tree.
Many homeowners purchase soil balls to get started. Also referred to as Balled and Burlapped (B&B) trees, these soil balls are the most common method of transplanting field-grown trees to their new home.
Using B&Bs is recommended for novice tree caretakers, as it circumvents the difficulty of nurturing seedlings and provides the homeowner with instant results. This method also makes it easier to handle the tree, and to picture how it fits into your overall landscape design.
B&Bs aren’t the only option out there, however. Homeowners can also purchase Bare-Root and Container-Grown trees from their local nursery. Keep in mind, each type of tree stock has different advantages, limitations, and needs, which are listed below:
- Bare-Root trees are typically sold with the roots bare, save for moisture-retaining medium encased in paper or plastic. If you purchase a bare-root tree, moisten the roots prior to planting, and spread them out evenly across the hole. Holes for bare-root trees need to be large enough so that the roots can be spread out evenly.
- Container-Grown trees have the advantage of a root system that is relatively undisturbed. Take care to avoid “pot-bound” container trees, which can be identified by large roots which completely circle the inside of the pot. Pot-bound container trees are difficult to transplant successfully, and the roots have difficulty expanding beyond their established perimeter.
- Balled and Burlapped (B&B) trees are moved with a ball of soil protecting their root system. Soil balls are heavy, so professional arborists who have proper equipment should be hired to plant large trees. Smaller B&B trees can be managed by the homeowner.
- Boxed trees are moved in boxes of soil. These are typically used by professionals in areas with sandy soils. They are commonly used to plant palms, as well. Boxed plants can be heavy and are limited to professional use.
- Tree spades are large machines that professionals use to transplant large trees. Use of tree spades is an acceptable practice, however these machines should only be used by professionals.
Once you’ve decided which kind of nursery stock suits your needs, follow these guidelines to finish transplanting:
Preparing the Site
If possible, prepare the site and the tree before you get started. Keep the root ball well watered, and keep the tree shaded until you are ready to plant. If you still feel ill-prepared, read “Prepping to Plant” for landscaping and design tips.
Digging the Hole
When digging the hole, remember – wider is better! If the hole is too narrow, your tree’s root structure will not be able to expand sufficiently to nourish and properly anchor the tree. To ensure your hole is the right size, follow these simple steps:
- Measure the height and diameter of the root ball or root spread.
- Dig the hole deep enough so it is a sufficient size for rapid initial root development during the first year. The hole width should be 1.5 times the diameter of the root ball or root spread. If your soil is compacted, the hole will need to be larger.
- Make sure you don’t dig too deep; this is the most common cause of tree or shrub failure. A good rule of thumb is to never dig the hole deeper than the depth of the root ball. The depth of the root ball is determined by locating the trunk flare of first large root.
- Break up compacted soil. Sides of planting space should not be packed, and the bottom space should be left firm.
- Holes for bare root trees may need to be larger to accommodate root spread.
Planting the Tree
This is the fun part! Once the hole is measured and arranged, follow these steps to successfully transplant your tree:
- Lift tree into planting space by root ball – not the trunk – and place it in the center of the hole. Carefully remove the soil from the top of the root ball to the first large root. The top should be planted an inch or two higher than the surrounding grade, to compensate for expected settling.
- For bare root trees, spread out the roots evenly in the hole.
- For container plants, remove the container before planting. You may need to cut the container off. If the plant it pot-bound, return it to the nursery to exchange it for a higher quality plant.
- Cut away strings, burlap, nylon, wire, twine and/or plastic to expose the root ball. Leave the soil in the root ball.
- Fill hole with soil from the planting hole, using water to settle the soil around the root ball. Do not tamp the soil by stepping on it.
Mulching & Maintenance
Good tree care practices, such as watering and pruning (and fertilizing when necessary) will nurture your canopy to its full potential. Immediately after planting your first tree, take care to mulch the planting area with 2 to 4 inches of an organic mulch, such as composted wood chips. Do not mulch up to or against the trunk; start the mulch 6 inches away from the tree trunk.
While fertilization is not recommended at the time of planting, this sort of upkeep – along with pruning, pest management, and other tasks – will be necessary in the years to come. To learn more about long-term tree canopy maintenance, read our “Tree Pruning FAQs” and “Soil & Roots FAQs.”
Use TCIA’s search tool to hire a professional arborist or tree care company.