University of Illinois Extension


Barbara Larson
Unit Educator, Horticulture
Boone and Winnebago counties

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Planting Trees

In April, we will celebrate Earth Day (April 22) and Arbor Day (April 26). These rites of spring prompt many to plant trees, but faulty planting kills more trees than any disease or insect problem.

The first and most important step is selecting the right plant for the right place. It is essential to match the plant’s soil and light requirements to the location. No plant, no matter how good it is, will grow well in the wrong environment.

Study the location. How much sun does it get? How much rain? Is it under the house eaves, near a downspout, or in the center of the yard? Is it near the house? Does it face north, south, east, or west? Is it wet or low? Is the soil clay or sandy? What is the soil pH? After you fully understand the site restrictions, then match the tree or shrub to those conditions. Of course, modifications can be made such as developing a berm in wet areas to improve drainage, but in general it is best to work with what you have.

The next step is digging a good hole. There is an old nurseryman’s saying that goes “it’s better to put a $5 tree in an $50 hole, than a $50 tree in a $5 hole.” In other words, a good hole will make up for a lesser tree, but a poor hole will make a good tree bad.

For the sake of brevity, planting directions are limited to balled and burlapped (B&B) or container plants. Contact University of Illinois Extension for directions on bareroot plants.

Dig the hole only as deep as the tree or shrub was originally planted. Roots of trees and shrubs planted too deeply will suffocate from lack of air and the trunks are prone to rots. The diameter of the hole should be up to twice the width of the root ball. The hole should be shaped like a bowl. Loosen or rough up the sides and bottom of the hole so roots can easily penetrate into the surrounding soil.

Place the B&B plant into the hole by lifting it by the rootball or twine. Never lift a plant by the trunk. Remove all of the twine. Make sure none is left around the trunk. Either cut off most of the burlap or tuck it down around the base of the rootball. Burlap left above the ground will act as a wick and dry the roots after planting.

Trees or shrubs in containers or pots should always be removed from the pot. Paper or fiberboard containers do not decompose fast enough for good root growth. Using a utility knife, make four evenly spaced vertical cuts, about one inch deep, in the rootball. If the bottom of the rootball is packed with roots, cut an X in the bottom, too. Tightly packed root systems and circling roots will not grow out into the surrounding soil after planting. By cutting the roots and loosening the rootball, the roots will branch and spread outward. Growth may be slowed initially but the plant will have a much larger and healthier root system in the long run. Set the plant into the planting hole, making sure it is at the same depth as before.

Refill the hole halfway with the same soil that came out of the hole. In general do not enrich the soil with compost or peat. In extremely sandy soils, peat or compost may be added to increase water retention. If the trees or shrubs are going into a large planting bed, the entire bed may be amended with organic matter prior to planting.

Add water to the half-filled hole and allow the water to penetrate. Then fill the hole the rest of the way and water again. Cover the bare soil with a two to three inch deep layer of organic mulch. Mulch should thin to nothing at the base of the plant.

Trees less than four inches in diameter in protected yards do not need to be staked. The tree flexing in the wind strengthens the trunk as it grows. Trees four inches or larger, trees in windy areas, or trees that may be bumped by people or pets need staking.

Water as needed by checking at the edge of the planting hole once or twice a week to see if the soil is moist at the six-inch depth. Over watering is as damaging as under watering.

Trees and shrubs beautify our world and improve the environment. They are a long-term investment that will pay off if started right.


April-May 2003: Planting Trees | Prevent Garlic Mustard from Setting Seed | The Roses Are Coming | Unusual Vegetables

Past Issues

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