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    Plant Trees

    How to Plant a Tree: A Step by Step Guide

    by Meaghan Weeden September 05, 2023 5 min read

    man planting a tree grey shirt brown soil green evergreen needles
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    Here's How to Plant a Tree Step by Step

    If you're wondering how to help the environment close to home, planting a tree is a great place to start! Even if you plant just one, it will benefit the environment for years to come. That's because trees help clean the air, filter water, offset carbon, create shade, give birds a place to build a nest, enrich the soil, and provide food and shelter for small creatures. And that's just the shortlist of the many benefits of trees

    "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."
    - Chinese Proverb

    Tree planting is one of the best ways to help the environment. Here's how to do it right. Follow along as we walk you through planting a Black Walnut tree, step by step!

    There are a few things to think about before you plant trees. When, where, and how you plant your tree will affect its survival. Below are some important things to consider before you get your hands in the dirt.

    When is the best time to plant a tree?

    The best times to plant a tree are usually during the spring and fall, when weather conditions are moist and cool. Choose a location where your tree will thrive and that you're close to so that you can watch it grow for many years to come.

    How to choose which tree species to plant

    You can visit your local tree nursery or garden center to find the best species of tree to plant. Nursery staff are usually knowledgeable about this and can answer many of your questions specific to your region. But some basic considerations that you should think about include: your property or planting site's microclimate, amount of sunlight, soil type and chemistry, drainage, and hardiness zone. 

    How to choose where to plant

    You've chosen a native tree species and now you just need to choose a planting site! Careful planning at this stage will help to ensure that your young sapling can grow into a healthy, mature tree that reaches its full potential and benefits the surrounding environment. There are a few key things to consider here. These include: 

    • How much space does your tree require to grow? How large will the canopy grow (crown spread), and how deep and far will the roots spread? Keep in mind that a tree's roots can spread much wider than its canopy aboveground.
    • Considering the standard growth structure of your chosen species will help inform how far you should plan to plant away from structures, foundations, driveways or sidewalks, underground plumbing, power lines, and any other built or natural features of the property. A good rule of thumb here is that trees usually need more space than you'd think! 
    • As above, so below. To be on the safe side, call your utility company so that they can mark any underground lines that may be running through your property. This will help you avoid future headaches associated with damaging utility lines. 
    • Another often overlooked but important consideration is: what happens in your yard during different seasons throughout the year? And are you okay with the tree dropping leaves, needles, seeds, cones, fruit, nuts, or sap? 
    • And finally: what are your plans for the future? Whenever you plant a tree, the hope is that it will be able to live out its lifespan. To help ensure that, it's worth thinking about whether you'll want to build a garage, shed, play area or other structure in the future — and plan around that.   

    Here's How To Plant a Tree Step-By-Step

    1. Dig a Hole 3 Inches Deeper Than the Length of the Roots

    Tip: Choose a place that is shielded from the wind.

    If your planting site is exposed to the wind, use nearby objects (like a rock or stick) to create a windbreak. Plant on the north side of the windbreak for shade and wind protection. And remember: the cooler and shadier, the better, so if you’re on a hill side, make sure that you’re planting on the north slope. That way, the sapling won't get too much sun. 

    2. Carefully Remove The Seedling From Its Container

    Tip: Gently loosen the soil to help the roots spread out.

    Make sure that your seedling isn't root bound. If it is, you may need to cut an X through the bottom of the root ball to break it up, but if it isn’t too bad, simply use your hand to gently break up the pattern. Exercise caution, because if you’re too rough with the roots, you will increase the risk of the tree going into transplant shock.

    3. Gently Nestle it Into The Hole and Backfill, Compressing As You Go

    Tip: Make sure that it's centered and upright.

    Think of this step as placing the seedling in a “bowl” that will be filled with water. Taking a little extra care during this step will help ensure that the roots get enough water to do their job. Once it's placed, backfill with the removed soil and compress in layers until the roots are entirely covered, but the trunk flare remains partially aboveground.

    4. Build A Raised Berm to Help Direct Water Flow

    Tip: Create a funnel that will allow water to drain towards the tree.

    Now is also the best time to do a tug test: lightly tug the tree to check that the soil is sufficiently compacted — if you can pull it right out, it’s not secure enough! And if you’re planting on a north-facing slope, consider fortifying the downhill side with whatever's handy (like rocks and sticks) to help stabilize the newly disturbed soil.

    5. Add Mulch to Help With Water Retention and Weeds

    Tip: Make a ring of mulch around the tree but avoid letting it touch the bark.

    Be sure to leave a baseball-sized perimeter around the stem, because mulch retains moisture and can lead to rot with prolonged contact. When carefully placed, mulch shields the soil from heavy precipitation and sun, which helps prevent water from evaporating off of the soil surface before the tree gets a chance to drink.

    6. Water Your New Tree to Help it Acclimate it to Its New Home

    Tip: 1 gallon of water once a week should be sufficient for most seedlings.

    Watering will help your new tree respond to the stress of being transplanted, and encourage its roots to grow and spread. If you want to get really fancy, you can set up a drip irrigation system that will slowly feed water to the roots over time. This will really give things a boost! 

    Get the Guide to Learn How to Select The Right Tree To Plant

    species selection guide
    Download the Guide

    Taking care of your tree: 

    Now that you have planted your tree, here are a few other ways to ensure that it can thrive in its new home!

    Research your environment: Read up on your local climate, gardening zone, soil type, and the best native species to plant. Or just talk with nursery staff, who are generally happy to share their knowledge!

    Plant during fall or spring (as far away from the heat of the summer as you can): Ideally, trees should be planted during the dormant season. In the fall, this is after leaf drop, and in early spring, it’s before bud break. This allows tender saplings to establish roots before things really heat up and conditions encourage intense foliage growth.

    Don’t amend the soil unless absolutely necessary: In some cases, it is, but researchers have found that adding too much compost to the soil can prevent the roots from spreading. The long-term affects of this include a smaller root system, reduced growth, and a less hardy plant.

    Consider setting up an irrigation system: At least, at first. Deep, slow watering allows the soil to slowly saturate, reducing runoff and giving the roots plenty of time to drink their fill.

    If fertilizer is necessary, hold off until the tree has had a chance to establish itself: At this beginning stage, all of the tree’s energy should be concentrated on root development to build a solid foundation for long-term growth and survival. When you’re ready to fertilize, use a slow-release, non-burning organic fertilizer to help prevent shock.

    Proper follow-up care is just as important as proper planting: Keep a close eye on things, particularly monitoring for any outward signs of distress, and making any necessary adjustments. Water trees at least once a week (unless it rains), and more often during hot or windy weather. But don’t over-water either: the soil should be moist but not water-logged.

    So there you have it! With our tree planting tips, you should be able to confidently plant a tree at home, and we highly recommend it. It's a great feeling! Still want to leave the planting to us? That's fine, too!

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    Meaghan Weeden
    Meaghan Weeden

    Meaghan works to share our story far and wide, manages our blog calendar, coordinates with the team on projects + campaigns, and ensures our brand voice is reflected across channels. With a background in communications and an education in environmental conservation, she is passionate about leveraging her creativity to help the environment!