How to Plant Your Tree

Tree planting 101

Planting a tree may seem like a simple task, but there are many very important steps to follow. Overlooking important elements can lead to disappointing growth and an unhealthy tree. For the long-term health of your tree, take time at the outset to devise a good plan for planting.

Trees Atlanta Tree Planting from Chris Hrubesh on Vimeo.

It is best to transplant trees when they are dormant (meaning they are not producing food). In Georgia, most deciduous trees are dormant from late fall until the end of winter. The best time to plant is between November and March.

When a tree is first planted, it can go into transplant shock. The tree is not familiar with its new surroundings and where to find water and nutrients. The tree essentially freaks out. There are simple things you can do to give the tree the best chance to not only survive the transplant, but to also get situated enough so that it can start growing relatively soon.

Right Tree, Right Place

A properly chosen tree can become a beautiful asset, such as a gorgeous magnolia tree blooming in your front yard. A poorly chosen tree, however, can become a burden. You may not realize it, but when planting a tree, the power is in your hands to create harmony between humans, trees, and the urban environment. Selecting the right species of tree for the right location is essential to fostering this harmonious relationship.

It happens far more often than we would like that a tree is selected because of physical characteristics such as flower (color, blooming time, and fragrance), fall color, fruit/wildlife habitat value, size and growth speed, or native vs. exotic WITHOUT considering critical environmental factors.

In actuality, the first step should be to match your yard’s environmental factors with the physiological needs of the tree. Environmental factors to consider include:

  • Soil type
  • Water availability
  • Sun exposure
  • Maintenance needs
  • Mature height and spread
  • Urban/residential property
  • Hardiness zone

A carolina silverbell or sugar maple might be the exact tree you want, but if you intend to plant it in a flood plain where the moisture in the soil is relatively high, it might be better to consider a similar-sized tree that is more tolerant to moisture, such as a paw paw. In this way, you can select a gorgeous tree that also fits well with your environmental conditions. With a little extra preparation and research, selecting a tree can be fun, easy, and successful. Sweat the small stuff – Pay attention to little details Once you have determined that you have the right tree for the right location, you’re all set to go, right? Not quite! There are many factors that can help make for a successful tree planting – or, more to the point, to avoid a disappointing failure. When is the best time to buy? What obstacles could impede proper growth? Will the tree provide adequate shade?

A lot of important considerations go into planting a tree, including:

  • Timing – it is best to buy in fall or winter from a reputable vendor, although the best selection can often be found in the spring.
  • Tree Quality – select a tree that is insect-free, with no major scars on the trunk, and one that has a good branching structure (central leader with horizontal branching).
  • Proximity to structures such as houses – planting a large tree too close to a structure can cause damage to the structure
  • Overhead and underground utilities – call 811 for a utility check, or visit the Utilities Protection Center for more information
  • Visibility – make sure that the tree will not cause any sight line problems for cars, pedestrians, signage, etc.
  • Desired shade benefits – don’t plant a small tree in a big space when a large one would benefit the area more

Tree Planting Tips

  1. Starting off by digging a great hole for your tree is the best thing you can do for it (after you pick the right tree for your location, of course). Your hole should be at least twice as wide as the container that the tree came in. Actually, if you have the time, why not go for 3 or 4 times the size? Think of digging a $200 hole for a $50 tree. The bigger, the better, because it loosens up soil, provides more oxygen for roots, and allows water to seep through better.
  2. The depth of the hole should be the same as the depth of the container. Making it a bit shallower (like ½ an inch) is okay. When you place the tree in the ground the root collar should be visible – you never want to bury your root collar under soil.
  3. The sides of your hole should be sloping down so that roots are encouraged to grow towards the surface. The sides of the hole should also be roughened up so that root tips can penetrate the native soil. This can be done with your shovel.
  4. When you take your tree out of its container, loosen (or massage) roots and check for problems like circling roots.
  5. There should never be any sod or other grasses put back into the hole or on top of the hole. Grass and other plants compete with the tree for nutrients and water. Planting grass next to a tree also encourages lawnmowers to get too close to the tree trunk. Rocks, bricks, asphalt, etc. should be placed around the outside of the hole, not next to the tree trunk.
  6. Refill the planting hole with the soil that came out. The only time you might use different soil would be if you needed to supplement it because there were many rocks in the hole.
  7. Mulch your tree using organic mulch such as wood chips, bark, pine straw, etc. (preferably not cypress mulch). Mulch should be nice and wide (the wider the better) and 2 to 3 inches deep. Mulch will need to be refreshed at least once a year (more often if it looks light).
  8. Water the tree with the amount of the size of the container it came in. Example: if your tree came in a 10g container, water with 10g of water. You’ll need to water you tree with this amount once a week during the growing season.

Step-by-step Tree Planting Instructions

Preparing the hole.

  • Use your shovel and remove all grass and weeds from the top of the planting area before digging the hole; set them aside. You don’t want grass or grass seeds to re-enter in the hole.
  • Once the top layer of grass is removed, dig the planting hole at least twice as wide as the rootball, and slightly shallower. The goal is make the root flare on the tree even with the top of the planting hole. Use your shovel handle to measure.
  • Loosen the floor of the hole somewhat to allow for drainage and root growth if the sides of the hole have become smooth as a result of digging (mainly wet clay soils). The sides of the hole need to be loosened to allow for root growth and drainage. Use the shovel blade to score the hole, which means make six or seven notches in the sides and bottom of the hole.
  • Make the floor of the hole flat so that the tree stands straight.

Carefully place tree in planting hole, lifting underneath the rootball, NOT the trunk.

  • If planting a containerized tree, cut off any roots poking through the pot using pruners.
  • Loosen tree inside the pot by lying on its side next to the hole and pressing on the container with your hands or knee; rotate the pot to loosen it on all sides. Remove pot by sliding the pot off the rootball (most easily done if one person holds tree and the other wiggles pot off).
  • Inspect rootball for circling roots (these will be woody roots), and cut off circling portion using pruners; make sure to disturb only circling roots. (The non-woody white root tips are used for nutrient and water uptake, and are greatly needed, so cut sparingly!)
  • If planting a ball and burlap (B&B) tree, loosen the wire basket by cutting it as low as possible, cut off all ties, and remove as much burlap as possible.
  • Place tree in hole and check again that the hole is the right size. Some soil that was in the tree’s roots may have become dislodged while you massaged the rootball, so if the tree is now shorter than the hole, just backfill a little dirt underneath it. Make sure the tree is the right height, and is perpendicular to the ground.

Backfill evenly around rootball using the soil from the planting hole.

  • Hold the tree upright in the hole and add the dirt that you dug from the hole. Break up clumps of dirt as needed (easiest to do after they are back in hole, using a shovel to chop ‘em up).
  • Remove grass and other weeds that snuck in. We don’t want to grow grass; that will compete with the tree for water and nutrients.
  • Gently poke the soil in the planting hole with shovel handle to remove large air pockets that could damage or kill roots, being careful not to press down on or compact the soil. Never stand or stamp your feet on the soil in the planting hole.
  • The finished level of backfill should be continuously even and basically level from the edge of the planting hole to the rootball with no more than one inch of backfill covering the rootball.
  • Any extra soil can be used to form a berm (doughnut) around the tree to help hold water in!

Mulch the exposed soil.

  • Two to four inches thick. But don’t make a mulch volcano, or it will be difficult for the water to seep down into the roots. We want the tree to get water as easily as possible, so don’t be tempted to make a huge mulch mound. Not necessary.
  • Wider is better! Take the mulch as wide as you want, but at least to the dripline, which is the tips of the branches.
  • Keep the mulch about three inches away from trunk to reduce root rot.
  • See Mulching Your Tree for further details.


  • Twice, about ten minutes apart, to further settle the soil.
  • Pour it on slowly and let it infiltrate.
  • Do not pack or stamp wet soil, as compaction of soil air spaces will result.
  • Water routinely as needed; we recommend 10 gallons a week for a 10 gallon containerized tree.
  • See Watering Your Tree for further details.

Staking and tying

  • Position stakes outside the planting hole, in soil that has not been disturbed.
  • Use flat belting to decrease damage to the bark and transport systems. Do not use wire or hose to tie the tree.
  • Remove ties after one growing season, because unremoved ties will girdle branches or trunk. We repeat: don’t forget to remove the ties!
  • Use stakes without ties to protect the tree from lawn mowers and other potential damage (two for narrow strips and a minimum of three evenly spaced around the hole for larger areas).

Prune sparingly

  • Remove dead wood, damaged branches, and structural problems.
  • See Pruning Your Tree for further details.


  • Water and check routinely for damage.
  • While young, the tree should be checked for structural problems: crossing branches, crown density, double/multiple leaders, and branches growing toward the street or structures such as buildings, fences, walls and power lines.

Enjoy your new tree! It will provide lasting benefits to your family’s home.