Planting a tree may seem like an overwhelming task, especially if you consider the sheer size and girth of some fully grown specimens. Remember, however, that trees begin small. Planting a young tree is a relatively straightforward process when you know a few facts ahead of time.
When you go to buy a tree, there are several common methods of preparing the root ball for transportation to your landscape project. The first is bare root trees, which are dug straight from a grower's nursery relatively cheap but must be cared for carefully to avoid the roots drying out. Containerized trees, typically made from plastic or a biodegradable material such as peat, are normally mid-priced since the roots are more protected and established but may be slightly root bound and require cutting before planting. Balled and burlapped (B&B) trees may cost more, but will provide a good start for the tree if handled with care prior to planting.
The Arbor Day Foundation suggests that you prepare the ground to a depth of 1 foot and an area up to five times the diameter of the root ball. Till the ground, incorporating organic compost to improve drainage if necessary. If drainage is a serious problem, a raised bed or underground tiled drainage system may be advised.
Preparing the Roots
Bare root trees may sit in a bucket of water for up to six hours prior to planting. If you cannot plant the tree right away, keep the roots moist and cool until planting. Roots often encircle the ball in containers, which can strangle the ball. Slice through these roots and make vertical cuts up to 2 inches deep in four places along the ball to loosen the remaining roots. B&B trees may be bound in synthetic or natural burlap. Even natural burlap will repel water, so remove the material carefully from the sides to the bottom; always handle the ball rather than the trunk.
Placing the Tree
The general rule of thumb is to place a tree no higher in the soil than it was grown at the nursery. You will see a soil line mark on the base of the trunk that may indicate this depth. If the tree is B&B, up to one-third of the ball may be above ground in order to allow for future settling and improve drainage. Backfill around the roots, especially bare roots, carefully firming without compacting the soil around them. Do not add fertilizer or amendments at this stage, as roots are sensitive and may suffer from the concentration.
Care of Planted Trees
Create a berm of soil, a mounded hill of dirt, 3 inches high around the circumference of the root ball, known as a water ring, to hold water in that area while the tree is growing. Apply up to a 4-inch layer of organic mulch, such as composted pine needles or wood chips, to help retain moisture, over the planting bed. Do not allow the mulch to come in direct contact with the trunk as this may encourage the spread of disease. Water the tree weekly, directly over the root ball, while the tree is establishing roots after transplanting. Roots will gradually spread out to seek more water on their own, but immature systems need frequent, direct moisture.