The best time to plant a tree is 40 years ago. The second best time is today.
Late winter is a great time to plant trees in the landscape. Before purchasing and planting a tree, it helps to do some investigating and learning. You’re about to make a long-term investment, so take some time to make sure you get it right.
Choose adapted species and varieties
Start by choosing a good, long-lived, strong species and variety. Every tree has its pros and cons, but some species are notorious for problems. The fastest-growing species are usually not the best long-term choice. Check with local arborists or your county AgriLife Extension office for suggestions that fit your site, soil and landscape goals.
Check the site
Choose a good location for the tree. Before planting a tree, look down and look up. Locate underground water and other utility lines before digging. Consider the location of overhead lines as well. That little scrawny stick you are planting is going to be a giant spreading tree someday. If it ends up growing into a power line, you won’t like the way it ends up being trimmed.
At planting, your new tree may look lost way out there in the yard — but envision its mature size to avoid limbs rubbing your home’s eaves and shingles, or roots damaging foundations, sidewalks, driveways or other masonry structures.
Prepare for planting
Trim off any broken roots on bare-root trees. Container-grown trees almost always have some roots circling the container and may also have circling roots in the interior from when it was growing in a smaller container. These roots don’t anchor the tree well and tend to not venture out into the surrounding soil as fast.
Now, this isn’t for the faint of heart, but you need to cut those circling roots. They will start to send out new roots in a few weeks, resulting in a much better established tree much sooner. Also, as a circling root grows in diameter and the trunk grows in diameter over the coming years, it can end up strangling the base of the trunk, resulting in significant problems.
Proper planting is important
Dig the planting hole only as deep as the root system, so the topmost root is at the soil line. Digging deeper will result in the soil settling, leaving the tree too deep. Dig the hole 2-3 times as wide as the width of the container so the new roots have loosened soil. An alternative to the extra digging is to push a spading fork into the ground and pull back just enough to loosen the soil all around the planting hole.
Use the soil from the planting hole to refill the hole. Don’t add compost or special mixes. These only discourage the roots from extending out into the soil. The tree will eventually have to survive in the soil from the site, so amending the planting hole just does not make sense. Avoid adding fertilizer also, as it can burn roots and it can wait until the tree has been growing for a couple of months or more.
Press the soil in lightly around the roots and water the tree in well as you fill the planting hole to remove air pockets. It can be helpful to form a large circular raised berm of soil about 3-4 feet wide to make it easier to give the tree a good deep soaking during the first critical summer season. Then mulch the soil surface with a few inches of leaves, bark or wood chips.
Many trees do not need to be staked at planting. Taller trees and trees with a full canopy of leaves at planting to catch the wind may benefit from staking. Just leave the guy wires a little loose to allow some movement of the trunk, which strengthens it. Do not leave stakes and wires on longer than 6 months to a year.
Now, for a very important final step. When the tree is planted, kneel down near the base and hold your hand over your heart while you take the following oath: “I will never get anywhere even remotely close to this tree’s trunk with a lawnmower or weed eater.” The smallest little nicks can provide entry for cankers and result in debilitating wounds on a new tree’s tender trunk.
Now is an excellent time to plant a landscape tree so it has plenty of time to begin the long process of establishing a strong root system to prepare for the hot summer months ahead. It makes sense to choose and plant these long-term investments well, so they can add significant value to your property and personal enjoyment for many years to come.