The Mystery of How to Plant a Tree So It Survives!

2 August 2014  Idea of the day “The more artificial taboos and restrictions there are in the world, the more the people are impoverished.  The more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”  Lao Tzu

“Those trees you sold us were bad!  They’re already dying!  Your guarantee covers replacing them of course, right?” said one of my angry customers on the other side of the phone a month after I had planted some trees for him.  My eyes rolled.  Oh boy, how many times have I heard that false accusation?  Actually only a few, but each time is one too many.

As a responsible arborist I have to realize I must not have communicated well enough.   Even when it’s written on the estimate in capital letters you still have to talk to each customer personally and directly about their newly planted trees.  I probably was super busy and somehow missed doing it with John.

“I’m sorry to hear that John.  Did you read the note on the estimate about this?”
“Note? What the heck note are you talking about?” he asked hostilely.
“Can you pull out your estimate?”  I asked him.
“Oh I guess it’s in the file cabinet here some place,” he said in an irritated tone.
“Well that’s good.  Pull it out and read that bottom paragraph.”

There was a sound of sliding metal as he opened the file cabinet and started looking for the original estimate.
“Oh ok, here it is,” he said.  Then it was eerily quiet on the other side of the phone as he read.

I knew exactly what it said.  It was our standard disclaimer.  “We buy the very highest quality trees with the best root systems from the finest farms and plant them exactly correctly.  But we cannot give a guarantee for any of the trees we plant because whether they now survive is entirely dependent on how well you water them.  Newly transplanted trees of this size MUST receive the equivalent of a full 5 gallon bucket of water DAILY for the first six weeks if they are going to survive.  Sprinklers are not nearly enough.  If you use a bubbler you have to make sure it puts out 5 gallons a day.  Then you must water the same amount 3 days a week for the next two months during a summer season, and then ideally once a week for the remaining 8 1/2 months of the first year.  Roots need the water to get fully established in the first year.   If the above is not done, you will see the tree wilt, shrivel, turn brown and die.”

“Oh,” John said.  “I didn’t see that. You should have told us about that.”
“You’re right John, I should have also talked to you about it personally.  I must have been very busy that week and it slipped my mind.”
“I guess they’ve only been getting a daily sprinkling. Well can we still save these trees? ”
“I’d suggest you go into full emergency mode immediately.  Even give them a little extra each day for a week. Maybe they can be saved.  Oaks are pretty hardy. ”
“Wow, planting new trees is a lot of work!” he exclaimed.
“Yep, just like other living things like babies and young toddlers, they take a lot of initial care but then later bring you years of joy on their own if they’ve been raised right in the beginning,” I said with a smile.
“Hmm, I see what you mean.  Well thanks for the tips.   We’ll see you next year for pruning.”
“Oh yeah I’ll tell you then all about the “structural pruning” young trees need.   That’s taking care of them until they’re teenagers if you don’t want a  problem tree in their adult years!”
John laughed.
“Guess I never realized I had a sort of new family when I planted these guys!”

Counties often require that you the homeowner  or association or company plant a number of new trees to replace the ones that had to be removed.   They do this to keep the county tree canopy stable.   This insures continuing high air quality and aesthetics and homes and food for wildlife while also protecting from the wind and erosion in storms and providing noise and light and heat and cold barriers in normal weather.   Or you might just decide you want to plant a tree or two on your own.  If you decide to plant it yourself (or to check up on your maybe not-so-educated landscaper (yes!) who is planting for you) there are some things anybody should know about how to plant a tree correctly so it will have the best chance of surviving.

1) Ideally buy your trees from farms known for the correct nurturing of the roots.  See the previous blog for more information on this.   If you don’t have a farm like this close by, at least knock off some of the dirt from the root ball in the pot to see what shape the roots are in.  Look for star-shaped formations headed horizontally or slightly downward.  Avoid roots that go down, twist around each other or are girdling around the outside of the root ball where they became pot bound.   Also get a tree with strong above ground structure, typically a tree with a strong, vertical central leader with evenly placed scaffold limbs extending from it and vigorous foliage.  (in Florida the best are called FF – Florida Fancy, next acceptable grade is #1)    For a full Power Point presentation of grading in Florida, see

2) Assuming you have a tree of a good quality like the above, the next thing you want to do is remove it from the pot and shave any exterior roots that have started to girdle around the outer circumference of the root ball.  At the same time you want to remove excessive soil off the top of the roots so that the horizontal support roots are exposed to the air.

3) Dig the hole a few inches shallower than the distance from the top roots to the bottom of the root ball.  For example, if that distance is 18″, then only dig a hole 16″.  It often settles once watered.  Especially if the soil is firm, compacted or has clay texture, you want to dig a hole that is twice the diameter of the root ball so that the truncated roots at the edge will be able to grow easily into the surrounding soil.  Once planted, don’t lay anything heavy around the tree’s roots, like construction materials or stones.

4) Plant the tree high so that the top roots are slightly above the soil grade with these roots getting full exposure to the air.

5) Backfill 1/3, then water to eliminate air pockets.   Backfill the next 1/3, water some more.  Backfill the final dirt the final 1/3 and water again.  Don’t add any fertilizer to new transplants.  That can burn the newly cut roots.  Mixing in cured organic compost would be fine (not newly raw manure!).  Make a moat at the top to easily water the tree from here on.

6) Add no more than 2″ of an organic mulch like wood chips or pine needles to keep the soil moist and keep weeds away as well as lawn mowers and weed wackers.  But don’t let the mulch touch the tree trunk, keep it 6″ away so it doesn’t encourage insect colonies, overly damp environments against the bark or smothering of the roots.

7)  If the tree is wobbly, top-heavy or the locale is windy at this season, tie three strap braces to the center of the trunk secured by pegs in the ground.  This will save you from having to re-plant the tree after a windstorm.

8) As mentioned above, prepare to start watering any 6 – 12 ft. tree with 5 gallons of water a day for the first six weeks, 5 gallons three times a week for the next two months and then 5 gallons once a week for the remaining 8 1/2 months of the first year.   Add slightly less or more with smaller or larger trees respectively.  Remember you’re raising a living thing that is going to give you years of enjoyment if you do it right!

Sprinklers hitting tree foliage tends to create fungal growth on the leaves so don’t let it happen.  Some species can’t take direct sunlight for very long in hot climates (like dogwood)  so plant on appropriate north sides of buildings.  Other species need direct sunlight for flowering (like crape myrtles, bougainvillea, many other flowering trees) or so they won’t develop fungus (e.g. Leyland cypress) so don’t plant them under big shade trees.  Also very important in urban environments is pick the right tree for the right space.  Oaks, pines, sweet gum, sycamore, yellow poinciana, hickories, American elm, maples and similar shade trees should NOT be planted in spots where they are closer than 10 ft. to hardscape like sidewalks, driveways, curbs or utility boxes.  If you do, you’re sure to have cracking, uplifted concrete in future years that will be very expensive to repair or worse have to remove the tree prematurely, also at great expense.  And don’t plant a tree that will get very large in a tiny back patio.  It may look “cute” now, but little trees get big and inevitably shed lots of pollen, flowers, fruit and leaves not to mention create invasive roots that could very well be a nightmare in your little space up the road.   Just because a tree comes in a pot doesn’t mean it will be able to stay in that pot very long.  So give trees and their roots lots of space to grow and expand in the future by planting in big enough spaces to start with.  Or plant very small accent ornamental trees and keep them pruned annually so they never get too big.

Hope this will help you have beautiful newly planted trees to enjoy for a long time to come!