Yard and Garden: Successfully Planting Trees during Spring



AMES, Iowa – Spring is a time for renewal and growth, and it’s also an excellent time for new beginnings. Planting a new tree (or trees) is a great way to create a legacy that can last for generations on a landscape. However, planting trees requires specific care and steps to ensure a successful outcome.

ISU Extension and Outreach horticulturists can help answer your questions about how to best handle planting new trees. To have additional questions answered, contact the ISU Hortline at 515-294-3108 or hortline@iastate.edu.

What is the proper way to plant a container-grown tree? 

When planting a container-grown tree, dig a hole that is two to three times wider than the diameter of the container. The depth of the hole should be two to three inches less than the height of the soil ball. Slope the sides of the hole so the top is several inches wider than the bottom. In poorly drained soils, the depth of the hole should be approximately two-thirds of the height of the soil ball.  

Once the hole has been prepared, carefully lay the tree on its side. Tap the sides of the container to loosen the soil ball from the container, then slide the tree out of its container. All containers should be removed, even purportedly plantable containers. If the sides of the soil ball are a mass of roots, carefully shave off the outer one-half to one inch of the soil ball with a sharp spade or saw. Place the tree in the hole. The top of the soil ball should be two to three inches above the surrounding soil. In poorly drained sites, the top one-third of the soil ball should stick above the surrounding soil.  

Gradually fill the hole with soil. With each new addition of soil, firm it in place with your hands. Place soil to the top of the soil ball and gradually slope it down to the surrounding soil. Once planted, water thoroughly. 

What is the proper way to plant a balled and burlapped tree? 

Dig a hole that is two to three times wider than the diameter of the tree’s rootball. The depth of the hole should be two to three inches less than the height of the rootball. Slope the sides of the hole so the top of the hole is several inches wider than the bottom. In poorly drained soils, the depth of the planting hole should be approximately two-thirds of the height of the rootball.  

Grasping the tree’s rootball, carefully lower the tree into the hole. The top of the rootball should be two to three inches above the surrounding soil line. In poorly drained sites, the top one-third of the rootball should be above the surrounding soil. Make sure the trunk is straight. Then, begin backfilling with the original soil. Firm the backfill soil in the hole with your hands.  

When the planting hole is half-full, cut and remove the twine. Also, cut away and remove the burlap on the top one-third to one-half of the rootball. If the rootball is in a wire basket, remove the top one-third to one-half of the basket. Completely fill the remainder of the hole with soil. Place soil up to the top of the rootball and gradually slope it down to the surrounding soil line.  Once planted, thoroughly water the tree. 

Should compost or sphagnum peat moss be added to the soil when planting a tree?

Do not add compost, sphagnum peat moss or other organic materials to the soil when planting trees. Studies have shown that the root systems of trees in amended soils tend to remain confined to the  amended soil in the planting hole, while trees planted without soil amendments developed roots beyond the planting hole. Additionally, in poorly drained sites, the amended planting hole can fill  up with water like a bathtub during periods of heavy rainfall, causing root suffocation and tree death.  

Tree selection is the key when planting in poorly drained sites or other difficult soils. Select tree species suitable for the soil conditions at the site.