How to plant a tree

November 10, 2013 

Fall is one of the best times to plant a tree.

"Trees are ending their growing season and shutting down for a winter's sleep," according to a guide recently released by the Southern Illinois University Carbondale's forestry department.

"As a result, there are less-stressful components since the tree's energy storage is being rerouted to the roots. Transplant shock is less, and the tree has a chance to work on re-establishing its root system in preparation for the next growing season."

Colder fall temperatures diminish risks associated with disease and insects, but the ground isn't frozen yet, so digging is easier than it is in the winter.

When selecting a tree species, keep in mind factors such as growth rates and mature heights and spreads. When selecting a spot for planting, consider location of underground pipes, above-ground power lines, soil characteristics and drainage.

"Different species of trees will have different types of requirements, such as amount of light needed, moisture, soil chemistry and tolerance to urban areas," the guide states.

"You may also have personal objectives for how your tree will serve you, including shade, fruit, flowering, (attraction of) wildlife species, energy conservation or fall-foliage aesthetics."

1. Dig the hole -- The depth should such that the tree's root collar is even with the ground when lowered into the hole. Soil directly underneath should be firm to serve as a pedestal so the tree doesn't raise or sink. The hole should be two to three times the root ball's diameter to ensure the roots will have room to grow or expand outward.

2. Check the roots -- If the tree has been grown in a container or burlap, the roots may be pot-bound and need to be loosened to ensure they continue to grow out instead of encircling the tree, which could lead to root-girdling.

3. Fill the hole -- Fill in soil around the planted tree and tamp it down to eliminate air pockets. Staking is not always necessary. Use stakes only if the tree cannot stand on its own or the trunk is bending at an undesirable angle. Otherwise, staking can potentially weaken the root structure as the tree needs to "learn" how to stand on its own against typical weather.

4. Mulch around tree -- Mulching helps retain moisture and keeps other competitive vegetation at bay. Mulch should be placed in a doughnut shape around the tree without actually touching the trunk at a depth of two to four inches.

5. Provide care as needed -- Water the tree at least once a week, depending on rainfall, until the soil freezes. Give the tree a chance to re-establish itself before pruning, which typically is done one to three years after planting. You may also fertilize lightly if needed.

For more information, visit, or or contact SIUC Urban and Community Forester Jennifer Behnken at 618-453-2517 or

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