Trees can be planted in the spring or fall. This segment demonstrates the proper steps needed to plant and help establish your new tree. It also shows easy ways to determine the size and depth of the hole, and other important tips.

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How to Plant a Tree

Fall is a great time here at Kansas State University, and we’re going to show you how to plant a tree today. There’s a few techniques you should be aware of on proper planting techniques.

When you’re planting trees, be aware of utilities. You can call 1-800-DIG-SAFE. They’ll tell you where to mark your utilities, and also be aware of sprinkler lines, and any overhead lines that may be in the way when you’re planting your tree.

When you’re digging your hole, you’ll want to make your hole about two times the size of the tree ball. That way, it gives adequate room to backfill the tree, and for root growth. One of the first steps you’ll want to do is to get rid of the sod. You don’t want to have grass growing up against a tree for maintenance issues.

As I mentioned before, you’ll want to have the hole about two times the size of the rootball. A good way to estimate it is to take a shovel handle, put it up against the tree and center it, and then you’ll have a good estimate. Put the shovel over your hole and center it again. We’re about right there on two times the size, so start digging!

If you do get some big clods like I just pulled out, you’ll want to break them up. It makes it easier for when you’re backfilling. When you’re digging your hole, be aware of the depth of your rootball. Make sure you don’t overdig the hole, so that you don’t have to go back in and backfill or make more work for yourself.

You’ll want to have your hole about the depth of the root flare. You’ll need to remove some of the mulch to find out where the roots are starting to come out from the trunk of the tree. That’s the depth you want to go for.

All right, I think we’ve got our hole pretty close to being the right depth. We’ll go ahead and check it again. Make sure we’re at ground level or just a little bit higher to allow for some settling of the soil. You want to make sure that once you put it in, that it doesn’t sink down -- especially if you have some fluff or extra dirt that you had to put back in.

It looks like we’re pretty close on top. What we want to do first is check the sides. If you have a really compacted soil try to rough up the sides. It makes it easier for the roots as they’re spreading out to get into the surrounding soil. So just take your soil, and cut some edges in to rough it up. That way it’s not tightly compacted.

We’ve got our rootball here. As you can see it has a pretty good root system on it. There’s not a lot of circling – that’s what we like to look for. The root flare, as we showed before, is right at the mulch level. We’ll just brush some of this off to make sure that we can see that it’s at the right level to plant it. If the rootball has a lot of roots, you’ll want to take your shovel and cut it in a few spots to get those roots to branch out and not continue circling like they were in the pot.

Then, you can put it in the ground. You can use a shovel to check to see if it’s at the right level. This looks good. Once you get to that point, you’ll want to make sure that the tree is straight and in the right position.

Once you have it in the hole, you’ll need to take the backfill, the dir that you took out, and throw it back in. You don’t want to compact it with your foot. Just take your shovel and break up the clods. And then start watering the tree. It breaks up the clods and helps to settle the dirt into the hole. Let that do the work for you and don’t press it in. That will just compact it, and makes it harder for the roots to come out of the rootball.

There are a couple other things to consider. On some trees, you’ll have a graft union. You can see the bulge where they grafted the top onto a separate root system to get the desired effect of that root system. You’ll want to make sure that it’s not buried or has mulch on it. If you do, you’ll get a lot of suckering and sprouts coming off of it. Then, you could have a shoot of the non-desired top of the root system. So, be aware of that if you do have grafted trees.

And, as you’re finishing up, you can rake away the dirt that’s on top of the rootball. Then, I’ll add some more water to again settle that top backfill that we just added.

Now that it’s backfilled, we can put some mulch down, and then get ready to stake it. A good two inches or so around the outside of the tree flare is a good depth to put on to retain moisture through the growing season, and on into the winter to protect it from heat and cold. You’ll need to make sure to keep the mulch away from the root flare. If you pile it up against the tree, you’ll have problems with shoots trying to grow into the mulch. And there may be problems with disease. You’ll have more entry points there, if you put mulch up against it.

When you’re finishing up, you’ll want to see if there are any tags on it. If you do have tags, you’ll want to make sure you remove those. You can keep them for your own records so that you’ll remember what your tree is, but it’s good to remove them. Depending on the material that was used to make the tags, you could have problems with it girdling the tree and becoming too tight on the stem.

Also, take a look and see if there are any dead or broken branches. Now’s a good time to prune those back. We don’t recommend pruning to reduce height at this time because the plant needs as many leaves as possible to keep growing and generating new roots since you just transplanted it.

This feature story prepared with Josh Pool, Kansas State University, former Horticulture Graduate Student. For more information, visit your local county extension office or visit our website at

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