Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
April, 2001
Regional Report

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Planting a tree correctly by digging the right-size hole is like investing in the future. It will pay dividends for years to come.

Time to Plant a Tree

People who plant trees have a different view of life than most. I'm not talking about planting a dwarf crabapple or fruit tree that will mature in a few years. I'm thinking of oaks, walnuts, sweet gums, and maples that take generations to reach their full majesty. Planting these types of trees takes forethought and a belief that part of the reason for living now is to make life for our children and their children a little better. I like planting trees, and now is the best time in our region to dig a hole and plant some future.

Tree Choices

Whether you are taking the long-term view or just want a small flowering cherry that will reach its full glory in a few years' time, the process of tree planting starts with selection. Look at the site where you want to plant. It should have full sun (at least 6 hours a day), well-drained soil with no standing water, and enough room to accommodate the size tree you want to plant. If you're thinking of a shade tree such as a sugar maple, keep it well away from the house, power lines, and underground water lines so it can grow unimpeded for years to come. If you have a narrow area between buildings, consider growing a tall, columnar tree such as a 'Lombardy' poplar (Populus nigra). For areas within gardens or close to a house, consider short trees such as redbud and Kousa dogwood. There is a tree for just about any location.

Buying a Tree

You can still buy trees bare-root through the mail until early summer or buy container or balled-and-burlapped trees from nurseries. Buying bare-root stock is less expensive, but you'll get smaller trees than if you buy from a nursery. Bare-root trees should be planted immediately upon arrival. Container or balled-and- burlapped trees should be checked for health. The leaves should be vibrant green with new growth. Plants in containers shouldn't be root bound. The soil ball of balled-and-burlapped trees shouldn't move independently of the tree. Of course, there should be no signs of broken branches, insects, or disease on the tree.

Digging the Hole

Once you have your tree, it's time to plant. Knowledge about tree holes has changed over the years. The present thinking is broad and shallow. Dig the hole only as deep as the tree ball, but two to three times as wide. This allows the roots (which are mostly in the top 12 inches of soil) to spread into the native soil more quickly. Also, don't add soil amendments such as compost and peat moss unless your soil is very poor. These amendments only encourage the roots to grow in the planting hole and not the surrounding soil.

Keep Them Wet

Remove any inorganic material such as wire baskets or nylon twine from balled-and-burlapped trees, but remove the burlap only if it won't disturb the soil ball. As you backfill the hole with native soil, add water to help remove air bubbles and allow the tree roots to come in contact with the soil. Once filled, build a moat 4 to 6 inches high outside the root ball all around the tree, so that rainfall and watering will soak down where the roots are.


Stake your tree only if it's tall and lanky. It's better not to stake trees because their natural swaying motion helps roots get established. If you do stake, remove the stakes and ties after a year or two. Use two stakes placed at opposite sides of the trunk. Attach flexible rubber tree ties to the trunk and fasten them so the trunk sways slightly in a breeze. Then just sit back and enjoy the pleasure of knowing you've done your part for greening the future.

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