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Tree Planting Guide

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How to plant a tree

Trees make our world a beautiful place. They provide us with many lasting benefits – shade, privacy, increased property value, shelter and food, and they contribute to our mental well-being.

Planting trees is one small way each of us can help improve the environment. Tree planting is easy if you follow these simple steps and remember to “keep the green side up!”

Plan Ahead

Think about what the tree will look like at maturity. How tall will it grow? What shape will it have? Will it fit in the space you have once it is full-grown? Would a coniferous (evergreen) or deciduous tree work better in your landscape?

A tree’s shape, height, size at maturity and function in your landscape will determine the best tree to plant in a particular location.

Before doing any digging, make sure to request underground utility locates to check for buried cables and wires on your property. Call your local municipality to learn who to contact and do not plant tall-growing trees close to overhead utility lines.

Tree Canada encourages planting native species appropriate to your local climate, light, soil, moisture conditions, and space availability.

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.

Conifers 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.

Planting Steps

1. Minimize stress to your trees

Protect your tree well during transport by padding the trunk and branches gently with burlap and tying loose ends with soft rope or twine.

Plant as soon as possible after delivery. If planting is not possible right away, store the tree in a cool, shaded area and water as needed to keep the roots and soil moist.

2. Prepare the planting spot

Dig a hole two to three times wider than the container or root ball. The hole should only be as deep as the root ball. When placed in the hole, the root collar (i.e. where the roots join the main stem or trunk) should be equal to or slightly above the depth of the hole.

Roughen the sides and bottom of the hole to allow root penetration.

3. Plant your tree with care

For trees in containers, gently slide the root ball out of the pot and into the hole. For burlapped trees, place the root ball in the hole and gently cut away the wire basket and burlap.

Plant the tree so that the top of the root ball is flush with the top of the hole and the tree is vertical. Fill the hole in and around the root ball with the soil removed from the hole or good quality soil. Do not return any grass or sod to the hole.

Gently pack the soil around the root ball until the hole is two-thirds full to remove air pockets. 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.

Taking Care of Your Trees

Mulch: Apply two to four inches of mulch around the tree over the area of the root ball to reduce the growth of weeds and retain water in the soil. Be sure to keep mulch two to three inches away from the trunk of the tree.

Watering: Water slowly and deeply immediately after planting and once a week or more as needed during dry conditions to keep the soil moist.

Fertilizing: Avoid applying fertilizer, except for bone meal or high phosphorus fertilizer, in the first year after planting. A higher nitrogen fertilizer can be applied later on for greening and top growth.

Staking: Staking trees is not necessary unless they are exposed to high winds or if the soil is shallow. Remove stakes after one year.

Pruning: Prune at planting to improve branch spacing and promote a strong structure by removing dead, damaged, or rubbing branches. Trees should be pruned while dormant in late fall or early spring.

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.

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 insects 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.