woman giving instructions planting

Tree Planting Guide

View our other resources here:
Tree Canada resources →


Trees make our world beautiful and provide us with many obvious benefits – shade, privacy, increased property values, shelter and food for birds and other small creatures, and even a place for childhood tree houses.

Besides these obvious benefits, trees also contribute to the health of our planet. They clean the air by giving off oxygen, storing carbon, and recycling moisture into the atmosphere. Trees help prevent soil erosion, help modify temperatures, and act as windbreaks.

Planting trees is not only a nice thing to do – it’s one way each of us can help improve the environment. Tree planting is not difficult if you remember to follow these simple steps and “keep the green side up!”

Plan Ahead

A tree’s biological needs, its shape and size at maturity, and its function in your landscape help determine the best tree to plant in a particular location. Select trees that grow well in your local climate and soil. Each species has a different tolerance to late spring or early fall frosts, flooding or drying, to high winds or low light levels, and to compacted, heavy, acidic or alkaline soils.

Think about what the trees will look like at maturity. How tall will they grow? What shape will they be? Are coniferous (evergreen) or deciduous species preferable? Be conscious of scale; very large trees or shrubs can be overpowering on a small property. Trees should enhance the look of a building and not overshadow it or block windows. Do not plant tall trees close to overhead utility lines.

Large deciduous trees on the southeast, southwest and west provide cooling shade in summer without obstructing the low winter sun. An evergreen windbreak along the north side of a property blocks cold winter winds. Remember, the roots of willows and poplars spread to seek water and are likely to plug water and sewer pipes, so don’t plant them near underground piping.

When to Plant

Deciduous trees can be planted in the spring, as soon as the frost is out of the ground or in the fall, from leaf-fall until freeze-up. Poplars, willows, ash, elms, and birches tend to overwinter better if planted in the spring.

Evergreens can be planted early in the spring until four weeks after deciduous trees have opened their leaves or in the fall, from about the first week of August to the end of October.


1. Minimize stress to your trees

Protect your tree well during transport to avoid bruising the bark and breaking twigs, branches, and buds.
Pad the tree trunk and branches with burlap and tie all loose ends with soft rope or twine.
Keep the root ball moist and cover exposed bare roots with wet burlap or moss.
Cover tree crowns with wet burlap to prevent drying of the tops, especially evergreen.
Keep the tree in a shady location until it is time to plant.

2. Prepare the planting spot

Remove grass, weeds and ground cover (turf) within a 50-cm radius of the planting hole. These plants compete with the tree for water and nutrients.
Dig the hole at least twice as wide as the container or root ball (to accommodate the entire root system), and to the depth of the root ball.
Roughen the sides and bottom of the hole to allow root penetration.
If good quality soil is not available, break up the turf taken from the top and put it in the hole around the root ball, where it will break down into good rooting soil. Peat or loam, if added, would improve this mixture.
Soil in the hole should be moist, not too wet or too dry.
A cone-shaped mound of soil at the bottom of the hole is advised for bare-root trees. This will allow the roots to develop downward and outward into the surrounding soil.

3. Prepare your trees for root growth

Bare-root: Loosen the roots with a spray of water and straighten them to prevent doubling-under, crowding, and crossing. Do not expose the roots to direct sunlight or drying winds for more than a minute to avoid damaging the fine root hairs.

Container: Trees should be kept in the container until the last possible moment before planting.

Burlapped: Trees wrapped in burlap should not be soaked prior to planting. The burlap should be removed prior to planting rather than leaving it to slowly decompose. Roots circling the outside of the root ball should be clipped, and roots matted on the bottom should be cut off.

4. Plant your tree with care

Bare-root: The root crown is set on the mound and the roots spread over and down the sides of the mound. Refill the hole with good quality soil, gently raising and lowering the tree while filling to eliminate air pockets.

Burlapped / Container: Plant the tree so that the top of the root ball is flush with the top of the hole. Fill the hole in and around the root ball with good quality soil or soil removed from the hole. Tamp the soil around the root ball until the hole is two-thirds full. Fill the remaining space with water to settle the soil and allow the hole to drain. Finish filling the hole with soil and make a ridge of soil around the root ball to direct water towards the roots. Water applied beyond the root ball is not available to the tree until roots grow into the native soil. If soil settles after a few days of watering, additional soil may be required to refill the planting hole.

Taking Care of Your Trees

Watering: If your soil allows water to drain easily (i.e., sandy), soak the tree two to four hours twice a week for the first two to three months and weekly thereafter for the first year. The roots must not be allowed to dry out. Peat moss mixed with sandy soils at the time of planting will improve water retention capacity. During the second year, water twice a month during the late spring and summer. If your soil contains a lot of clay and water tends to puddle around the tree, lighter watering is recommended to prevent flooding and to ensure that the roots receive enough oxygen to permit growth. Additional watering of evergreens, prior to freeze-up will minimize the detrimental effects of winter drying.

Fertilizing: Fertilizer helps trees thrive and resist drought, disease, and insects. High phosphorus fertilizers are recommended at planting time to promote root growth. Later on, higher nitrogen fertilizers can be applied for greening and top growth. Slow-acting fertilizer can be applied anytime, but mineral uptake is greatest from May through July. Fast-acting fertilizer is best applied in spring so that the new growth it stimulates has time to mature by winter.

Staking: Staking trees larger than one meter is recommended as it prevents dislodging by wind, people, and animals. Make sure the stake ties do not cause damage to the bark. The stakes should be removed after two or three growing seasons.

Pruning: Prune at planting simply to improve branch spacing and promote a strong structure in the tree. Annual pruning should be started when the trees are young in order to train them to the desired shape.

Deciduous trees should be pruned while dormant – in late fall or early spring. Exceptions are birch and maple, which must be pruned when the leaves are fully grown or they will bleed. Remove dead, damaged, diseased, weak and thin, or rubbing branches. Remove water sprouts from the trunk and main branches and suckers from the trunk base or roots. Thin the young branches to maintain the desired crown shape and size. Cut just outside the branch collar (the swollen area at the branch base), and do not make flush cuts or leave stubs.

Conifers are pruned to direct new growth, and increase density. Entire branches are not usually removed, since unsightly gaps will result. Spruce and fir must be pruned in late spring after new growth has started but not yet matured. New pine buds should be pinched back in early June when the new growth (candle) has reached full length.

These are general guiding principles for tree planting and care. For more specific information, please consult your local garden center, district agriculturalist, forester or forest technician, library, or tree nursery staff on proper planting procedures for individual species.

Reproduced with permission from Canadian Forest Service – Natural Resources Canada. 1992 ISBN 0-622-19536-1

More tree planting tips and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How do I stop tree roots from damaging my foundation?

Tree roots cannot live in sterile mediums such as concrete and will never seek to penetrate foundation walls. Instead, tree roots will seek moisture and may enter leaking pipes (or foundations) in search of moisture. Ensure your stormwater and other drains are not leaking

In certain cases there may exist a unique combination of factors which allows foundation walls to crack – this includes: the use of specific soils (such as marine clays) to be backfilled against buildings, the conveyance of surface water from rooftops and roads to stormwater sewers, periods of prolonged drought, and where trees are also present withdrawing large quantities of water from the soil, the soils may shrink which allows the foundation to move in an outwards direction potentially cracking the foundation.

Do not use clay as a backfill to your building, ensure as much surface water as possible is allowed to drain onto your soils and not a stormwater drain and choose a species of tree who does not have a huge thirst for water (e.g. do not choose silver maple Acer saccharinum)

How young a tree should I plant?

Plant as young a tree with a healthy root system as your site will allow. In high-traffic areas, larger trees will be needed.
Younger, smaller-sized trees have a higher number of roots than do older, larger-sized trees. Trees rely on stored starches in their roots when they are being transplanted until enough new roots are grown to sustain tree growth. Transplanting a bigger tree means it has to exist on its stored starches in a lower number of roots so it is more stressful for a larger tree to be transplanted than a younger tree.

How often should I water my tree?

For the first few years of your tree’s growth, check the soil regularly and make sure it is always slightly damp. If it isn’t raining often, water the tree with three bucketfuls of water twice a week, or with the hose on a slow trickle for 15 to 20 minutes twice a week. Make sure you’re not overwatering. If water is pooling around the tree or the soil is extremely wet after watering then water less frequently.

Still have more questions?

Read our main FAQs page for more questions about tree planting, tree maintenance and Tree Canada.

Tree planting myths and tree care urban legends

“Enhance your planting site with as much compost-rich top soil as possible to ensure growth”

This is a myth. When a tree is planted in soil that is radically different than the original soil it is growing in, or when new soil is too rich, it can be harmful to the tree as the roots will refuse to grow outside the planting hole, creating problems for the tree’s roots not anchoring properly. Roots can grow in a girdling condition if the new soil they are planted in is very different than the soil it has originally grown in. When a tree is planted near a permanent structure made of concrete (i.e. retaining wall, house), roots may become girdled by being deflected from the structures.

The soil you are planting in should not be radically changed or augmented with compost, try to leave the soil conditions as native as possible. The tree’s roots should be loosened up to encourage them to grow out and any girdling roots should be cut away when the tree is taken out of a container.

“After planting a larger tree, it must be braced and staked”

This is often unnecessary, except where there is bare root planting in a windy area where or where you are planting on a slope – trees need to develop a strong support and reaction to wind and sway is important to ensure that it develops this wood. Unfortunately too often the stakes and wires are left on too long and the tree grows into these.

“The more mulch the better”

Too much mulch can damage root growth as it creates low soil oxygen but high moisture levels and can cause insect root rot and other diseases, and affect soil pH or soil nitrogen levels

Use bark or living perennial mulch, more inert than wood chips, to a maximum depth of three to eight cm (1”-3”)

“Fertilize soon and often”

Fertilizer contains one or more elements required for tree growth but should not be thought of as “food” – it is like a vitamin, not a meal and can actually stress newly-planted trees.

Use a well balanced fertilizer (10-10-10) if soil and leaves appear to be deficient and/or two years before, or two years after any root injury but not soon after tree is newly-planted.

“Control all instects as soon as possible”

There are many insects who simply need trees for survival and do not harm them and can be helpful in controlling other insects that may harm trees. Identify insects found on the tree to see which are beneficial and which are not before attempting to control them.

“To help offset root loss during planting, you should always cut back the top of the tree”

This is a myth. Removing the top of the tree will impede healthy growth because it reduces the tree’s capacity to photosynthesize. The tree’s crown form, structure and development will be negatively affected by the removal of the top live limbs.

Only the diseased, damaged or dead wood should be removed during the first 5-10 years after planting the tree.