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How to Care for Tree Seedlings

By Desirae Roy ; Updated September 21, 2017

Few experiences as a gardener yield the satisfaction of growing a tree from a seedling to maturity. Watching a tree reach for the sky year after year, branching and stretching as it provides shade, shelter, and food for garden inhabitants is an exercise in patience and long term rewards. Plant your tree seedlings in spring immediately after purchase or arrival by mail to ensure the best start possible for your little miracle of nature.

Choose a site for your tree seedling that has full sun and well drained soil. Certain tree species may have specific cultural requirements that you will want to provide, based on recommendations of the retailer they came from. In general, tree seedlings will suffer in heavy shade and areas where water pools or cannot run off.

Plant trees on a cool, wet day if possible. Dry, humid days are inadvisable for seedling planting due to root stress. Store trees with roots wrapped in wet paper towels inside of a clean plastic sack closed around the trunk. Place in the refrigerator until weather cooperates, for up to 5 days.

Unwrap the tree seedlings from the protective covering or tubing they came in. Gently separate roots if there are multiple trees in the same covering.

Submerge the tree seedlings in a bucket of water. Do not allow seedlings to sit out exposed to the air for any length of time after unwrapping, or damage to the young tree may occur. Allow 3 to 6 hours of soaking for the roots to become completely hydrated.

Dig a hole for each tree seedling. The depth should equal the length of the longest root. Turn the soil with your shovel in the hole to ensure room for the roots to spread. Another technique is to use a planting bar or dibble to create a single, deep wedge or cylinder shaped hole for the tree to rest in. Take care to avoid compacting the soil if you use a special planting tool, as roots will die if they aren't able to penetrate the surrounding soil.

Set the seedling into the hole with the roots fully stretched out. The collar of the tree, or line on the trunk that indicates where the tree was planted in the nursery, should rest at the soil line. A color shift on the trunk may also be a good indicator of the collar location. Gently back fill the base of the hole around the lower roots, firming as you add soil to the top of the hole. Avoid tight packing of the soil.

Create a small berm of soil a few inches away from the trunk encircling the seedling. This will act as a water basin, keeping water near establishing roots. Do not fertilize tree seedlings at this stage in their development. Fertilizer in the planting hole may cause root burn, damaging the new tree.

Add 2 inches of organic mulch, such as pine bark, starting at an inch away from the trunk outward to a 2 1/2 foot radius. Mulch touching the trunk may cause the spread of disease.

Keep soil moist, watering every week to 10 days during the first year of growth.


Things You Will Need

  • Tree seedlings
  • Bucket
  • Shovel
  • Planting bar or dibble

About the Author


Desirae Roy began writing in 2009. After earning certification as an interpreter for the deaf, Roy earned a Bachelor of Arts in elementary education from Eastern Washington University. Part of her general studies included a botany course leading to a passion for the natural world.