Tree planting questions & answers


Here are some of the questions we hear most frequently about tree planting:

Q: “What is the best time to plant trees?”

A: Once they drop their leaves (except for evergreens, which have foliage year-round but still go dormant in winter); in other words, fall and early winter for most trees.

Q: “How often should I water?”

A: Deep root soaking once or twice a week is best. Disregard rain, because it takes several inches of rain the penetrate deep enough to help a newly planted tree. How much water to use depends on the size of the tree. We like to make a “bowl” around newly-planted trees to hold at least five gallons of water, more for large trees. Watch the tree closely. Over-watering can be worse than under-watering. Wilting late in the day indicates dryness, but the tree should be perky in the morning. Yellowing leaves and wilting in the morning often means drowning. Poke your finger in the soil and check. Evergreen trees need winter watering, others usually don’t.

Q: “When should I fertilize the tree?”

A: We recommend mixing tree fertilizer with the soil when planting, and if you do this you won’t need to fertilize for at least a year. After that, fertilize in spring and then again in late summer. Trees absorb fertilizer when the soil is warm, during the summer and early fall. Use a balanced, low-nitrogen dry fertilizer that includes trace minerals, like Espoma “Tree Tone”, not “Miracle-Gro” or agricultural fertilizers.

Q: “Should I remove the burlap from the root ball?”

A: Most nurseries use bio-degradable burlap so there’s no need to remove it unless it’s unsightly. We like to cut the burlap off the top once the tree is planted, but trying to remove it from the entire root ball can do more harm than good. Burlap holds the root ball together, preventing root damage during handling and planting. Make sure you cut any string, rope, wire or labels that are around the tree trunk. These can cut into the bark and even kill the tree if left on.

Q: “Should I cut the wire basket off?”

A: Large trees should have a wire basket to hold the root ball together during shipping and handling. Taking it off before the tree is planted can allow the root ball to fall apart. We suggest leaving the basket on until the planting hole is half filled with well-tamped dirt, and the tree is straight and solid. Take a bolt cutter and snip off the top half of the basket so it won’t girdle the surface roots or trunk as the tree grows.

Q: “Do I need to stake the tree?”

A: We recommend staking for several reasons. Newly planted trees are in soft ground so the wind can easily push them crooked, or even uproot them. Stakes also discourage deer from damaging young trees. The best tree stakes are pencil-pointed hardwood, long enough to hammer several feet into solid ground and still have three or four feet showing. Three stakes work best. Use strong rope or wire, covering it with cushioning so it won’t cut into the tree bark. We use “poly chain lock”, an adjustable tree tie popular with nursery growers because it’s so easy to adjust.

Q: “How long do I leave the stakes?”

A: Hardwood stakes will eventually rot, which is why we prefer them to metal. One year is good, two years is better. Check your tie material now and then to make sure it’s not chafing the tree. Adjust the tension of the tree ties to make sure the tree is still straight.

Q: “Should I wrap the trunk?”

A: We sometimes protect trees with tree wrap, a special tape wound around the trunk like an ace bandage. This prevents wind and sun from drying out the bark, prevents sucker growth, wards off bark borers, and protects the bark from chafing by tree ties. As the tree grows, the wrap stretches and eventually falls off. Older trees with rough bark don’t need tree wrap, but young, smooth-barked trees need the protection.

Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are on the “Garden Advice” page at For more information is available at or call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.

By Steve Boehme

Contributing Columnist

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