KC Gardens

Ten rules for planting trees

Move the tree by carrying the pot or root ball, not the trunk.
Move the tree by carrying the pot or root ball, not the trunk. deulitt@kcstar.com

If you are planting a tree this spring, here are some tips. A properly planted tree establishes much quicker.

1. Select the right tree for the site. Choose a tree that is adapted to your location. Does it produce nuisance fruit? Select disease-resistant varieties, if available. Consider the mature size of a tree to be sure you have enough room.

2. Keep the tree watered and in a shady location until planting. When moving the tree, lift it by the root ball or container, not by the trunk. This damages the root system.

3. Before planting, remove all wires, labels and cords. They might girdle the branch.

4. Dig the correct size hole. Don’t dig the hole too deep and then add soil back into the hole before placing the tree. The tree will sink. It must sit on firm soil. The root flare (point where trunk and roots meet) should be visible and be slightly above soil grade. If it isn’t, gently remove soil from the top of the ball to expose the root flare.

The hole width should be at least three times the width of the root ball. Loosening the soil outside the hole to a width five times the diameter of the root ball will allow the tree to spread its roots faster.

5. Remove all containers from the root ball. Cut away plastic and peat pots; roll burlap and wire baskets back into the hole, cutting as much of the excess away as possible. If you can remove the wire basket without disturbing the root ball, do it.

If roots have circled the soil ball cut them and spread them out so they do not continue growing this way inside the hole. Girdling roots can later kill the tree. Remove any loose soil covering the root flare.

6. Backfill the hole with the same soil that was removed. Amendments such as peat moss likely do more harm than good. Make sure the soil that goes back is loose — no clods or clumps. Add water as you fill to ensure good root-to-soil contact and prevent air pockets. No fertilizer is needed.

Adding organic matter to a larger area than just the planting hole can be beneficial, but it must be mixed in thoroughly with the existing soil. But adding amendments to just the planting hole in our heavy soils creates a “pot” effect that can fill with water and drown your new tree.

7. Don’t cut back the branches of a tree after planting except those that are rubbing or damaged. The leaf buds release a hormone that encourages root growth. Cutting limbs reduces leaf buds and results in fewer hormones being released and therefore less root formation.

8. Water the tree thoroughly, and then once a week for the first season if there is insufficient rainfall.

9. Mulch around the tree. Mulch should be 2 to 4 inches deep and cover an area two to three times the diameter of the root ball. Mulching reduces competition from other plants, conserves moisture and keeps the soil temperature closer to what the roots prefer.

10. Stake only when necessary. Trees establish quicker and grow faster if they are not staked. However, larger trees or those in windy locations may need to be staked the first year.

Stake to limit movement of the root ball not to immobilize the trunk. Movement is necessary for the trunk to become strong. Movement in the upper portion of the tree encourages root development and a sturdy tree.

Dennis Patton is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Got a question for him or other university extension experts? Email them to garden.help@jocogov.org or visit KCGardens.KansasCity.com.

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