How to Plant a Tree
You have the tree. You have the site. Now you just need to dig a hole and plant, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Planting is its own science, and doing it improperly can lead to tree decay and death. To give your tree its best start in its forever home—and create an environment where it can grow and thrive for years to come—use our guide below.
- Locate the Root Flare
The root flare is where the first major roots extend out from the tree trunk (see photo). Once planted, the root flare should sit just above the top of the soil, including any mulch that may be added.
- Dig a Shallow Planting Hole
Now that you have located the root flare, dig a hole that will allow the flare to sit just above the soil. The hole should be 2-3 times the width of the container or pot holding your tree; make sure the bottom of the hole is flat, with no loose soil (so the tree doesn’t sink over time). If you accidentally dig the hole too deep, just add soil and pack it down to create a solid bottom. Be sure to save the dug-up soil to refill the hole later!
- Remove the Tree or Plug From Container
To loosen the roots, gently roll the pot sideways on the ground, like a rolling pin. If you have a plug, gently massage the container. While it is sideways, carefully remove the planting. If it is still difficult to remove the tree, the roots need to be loosened more.
- Examine the Roots
Take a good look at the roots of your tree. If they have filled out the container and are now growing in a circle, you need to redirect them—because circling roots will stunt the growth of your tree and can lead to its demise. Cut into the bottom edges of the root system at 4-5 evenly spaced locations. Massage the bottom of the roots gently until some tendrils break their tight formation and come free.
- Place the Tree in the Hole
Orient your tree how you would like it to grow, ensuring the root flare is above ground. (A buried root flare will lead to rotting over time, compromising the health and safety of your tree.)
- Fill in the Hole
Backfill the hole with the soil you previously dug out, patting it down with your feet between each layer. Soil that is too loose can destroy the roots, while overly compacted soil will make it difficult for the tree to grow. The remaining soil can be spread around the perimeter of the hole in order to not cover the root flare. Avoid amendments such as fertilizers and compost.
- Water Your Tree!
Give your new tree a nice drink of water to remove excess air pockets, pack soil, and reduce stress from transplanting. Long, slow watering is best to ensure the water is fully absorbed by the soil instead of running off.
Spread bark mulch or arborist wood chips 2-3 inches deep around the base of the tree. Keep the mulch about a hands-width away from the stem to avoid rotting.
If your tree cannot support itself after transplanting, a stake can be used to prop it up while it grows strong enough to stand on its own. A tree without stakes will develop the roots to hold itself up faster than a tree that is staked, so only add stakes if necessary. Use a proper tree tie, such as a chain-lock, to secure the tree to the stake, placing it as low as possible while still keeping the tree standing. Remove ties within 1-2 years.
- Protect the Tree
Sequoia and redwood saplings will need protection from animals—and people—until they are 6 feet tall or larger. If your tree came in a pot, we recommend using metal fencing held in place by 3-4 stakes (see picture). A diameter of 6-10 feet is best so the tree can grow without interference. Area can be reduced if your tree came as a plug. Extending the mulch so it is outside the tree protection will reduce vegetative competition.
Congratulations! You have successfully planted a gift for the collective future we hope to save. Tend to your tree lovingly, and your legacy will live on in its heartwood, carrying your love and your gift well beyond your lifetime.
* Adapted from Trees for Seattle web page.