How to Plant a Tree or Shrub

Tree Selection

Select a tree that is suited to your location and climate. That will help insure success. A tree that is balled and burlapped should have a sufficiently large root ball: about 1 foot root ball diameter for every inch of trunk diameter. For example, a shade tree with a trunk diameter of 2 inches should have a ball that is about 24 inches in diameter.


Maintain the health of the plant during storage and shipment, prior to planting. Remember that trees and shrubs are alive, so handle them accordingly. Avoid the following deadly stresses:

  • Desiccation (drying out) of the root ball. Keep that root ball moist!
  • Temperature extremes: Avoid freezing or cooking your plant during storage or transport.
  • Harsh Handling. This is a live plant, so avoid damaging it.

Location Selection

Select a good location for placement of the tree. Make sure the plant has plenty of room to grow and develop normally in all directions (including vertically).Look up and all around. If there are electric wires, lights, poles, or buildings nearby that could interfere with proper development of the canopy as it expands, plant somewhere else. Also consider the future root growth, which will typically extend well beyond the drip line.

Digging the Hole

Dig a hole that is shallow but wide. Holes should be 1½ to 3 times the diameter of the root ball. If the soil is compacted or has lots of clay, use the wider figure. The depth of the hole should be slightly less than the height of the root ball. In other words, the top of the root ball should stick out above the hole a little bit when planting is completed.

Placing the Tree in the Hole

Carefully place the tree into the planting hole. For very large specimens, move the tree around using straps or ropes around the root ball, not the trunk.

Stand the tree up straight and check to see that the root flare is above the ground. The root flare is the point where the large, topmost root emerges from the trunk. If the hole is a little too deep, tilt or raise the tree and slide some soil under the ball until you achieve the right height. The top of the root ball should stick above the ground by about 1 inch for small trees to about 3 inches for large trees.

Undressing the Root Ball

Remove all extraneous material from the trunk and root ball. This includes burlap, synthetic wrapping, plastic, string, rope, etc. Before removing any wire from wire baskets, make sure this does not void any warranty.

Positioning and Backfilling

Make sure the tree is positioned with a straight posture before you begin backfilling. The soil removed from the hole usually makes the best backfill. (If you are inoculating the tree with mycorrhizal fungi, this is the time to add a product such as ROOTS Tree Saver.) As you add backfill soil, break up clumps with a shovel as much as possible. As you fill, avoid stomping firmly on the soil with your foot, as this could compact it too much and restrict root growth. Some moderate tamping with the shovel is adequate. Fill the planting hole until the top of the root ball sticks above the ground by about 1 inch for small trees to about 3 inches for large trees. Most arborists agree that it is better to plant a tree a little high than to plant it too deep.

What About Fertilizing?

Avoid the temptation to fertilize a new transplant with high nitrogen. This will stimulate leaf growth at a time when the roots are too sparse to support the water needs of a large canopy. Some arborist prefer not to fertilizer at all for the first year. If you do fertilize the first year, provide micronutrients with little or no nitrogen.

Exceptions do occur. Sometimes, a spec will call for fertilization, or the situation involves very infertile soils and no opportunity for return maintenance. In such cases, one can resort to low N fertilizers with very slow-release characteristics. Organic-based fertilizers are often slow-release, and provide stimulation of beneficial microbial growth in the root zone. Examples include ROOTS Healthy Start 12-8-8 Macro Tablets, or ROOTS Healthy Start 3-4-3. Other types of low N fertilizers, like micronutrient treatments providing iron, magnesium, manganese, for example, are good treatments in this situation, because they do not stimulate top growth and they provide essential minerals for new growth, including root growth. Commercial Examples include ROOTS BioPak Plus 3-0-20.

Avoid weed killers. Keep fertilizers containing broadleaf weed killers as far away from new trees as possible!


Provide 2 gallons of water per inch of trunk diameter, applied to the original root ball. If possible, water the tree:

  • Daily for the first 2 weeks, then
  • Every other day for next 2 months, then
  • Once weekly until the tree is established.

Adjust your watering regimen according to temperature, rainfall, and soil type. Sandy soils may require more frequent watering, while clay soils may allow less frequent watering. 

Securing the Tree

If necessary, stake the tree to hold it firmly in place. If the root ball is moved by wind, it could break growing roots. This will slow the tree’s establishment. Staking can be removed later, when the tree becomes stable.


Cover the edges of the root ball with mulch, and apply mulch in an outward circle extending about 8 feet in diameter. The depth of the mulch should be 1 to 3 inches. Keep the mulch well away from the trunk. Never allow mulch to touch the trunk! After spreading the mulch, water it well.