Planting Trees


The ideal time for planting trees in South Carolina is the dormant season - from late autumn after the leaves have fallen until early spring, just before the buds break and new leaves begin to form. This is the period when the aboveground parts of trees are at rest, but the below-ground parts are still active. Since winter is the "rainy season", this helps settle the soil around newly planted trees, and soil moisture favors root growth while the canopy is at rest. It's time to wrap up tree planting when temperatures warm up, days lengthen, and blooms and leaves appear.

Location, location, location
Trees invariably surprise us by growing bigger than we imagined they would. Also, their roots spread much further than we think. These characteristics make it absolutely critical for us to choose the best location for the tree we are planting - because mistakes can be costly.

Here's the first step: LOOK UP. If there are wires overhead, choose a different location or make absolutely sure the tree you're planting is a low-growing tree. This is such a simple but often overlooked key to long term success.

The second step: find out if there is anything buried underground - electric lines, cable TV, telephone, gas, water, sewer, septic fields, and drainage lines are all possibilities. To locate underground utilities call 8-1-1, the Palmetto Utility Protection Service.  It's a toll-free call, and is required by law before digging anywhere.

After you've located all overhead and underground utilities, make sure there is adequate space for the canopy to develop and underground space for the root system. This will depend on the type of tree you want to plant and the proximity of the selected location to neighboring trees, structures, pavement, etc. Some general rules of thumb to keep in mind: trees will grow toward areas of open sky, so if planting near a shaded area, the tree may naturally lean out toward the open area. Some trees tolerate shade, many do not. Some trees tolerate low areas where water stands after a rain, most do not. Make sure you find out what type of conditions your tree will tolerate. Don't doom your new tree by planting it in the wrong spot!

tree planting diagram

Planting Steps to Follow 

    1. Water your tree thoroughly prior to planting. Soak bare root trees overnight.
    2. Remove ALL vegetation, including grass and roots, from the planting area.
    3. Loosen the soil well throughout the planting zone.
    4. Dig a shallow hole in the center of the planting area. NO DEEPER than the root ball.
    5. Carefully probe around the base of your new tree to find where the top roots are located.
    6. Remove soil if needed so that top roots are within an inch or so of the surface.
    7. Carefully separate the root ball from its container or coverings, and set the tree in the shallow hole.
    8. Make sure top roots are at final grade, and tree is straight.
    9. Backfill carefully with existing soil.
    10. Build a ring just outside the planting hole with the remaining soil. Water thoroughly.
    11. Mulch with a 2 to 3 inch layer of composted organic matter (leaves, straw or wood chips). Water frequently for the first growing season.

Containerized, balled & burlapped, or bare root?
Trees can be purchased in three different forms: containerized (grown in a special lightweight medium in a container), balled and burlapped (field grown, dug with soil surrounding the roots) and bare root (removed entirely from the soil and sold with exposed roots). Each form has its own advantages and disadvantages. Most homeowners deal primarily with containerized trees, since these trees are most commonly available through garden centers and nurseries.

Balled and burlapped ("B&B") trees are grown in the field. When they reach a marketable size, they are dug, either by hand or by machine. Their roots are cut, and the root ball is wrapped in burlap or otherwise bound in some fashion to keep the soil and root ball intact. The disadvantage of B&B trees is that they are heavy and difficult for the average homeowner to handle. Also, only a small percentage of the original root system is transplanted with the tree, which greatly increases the need to provide water during the tree's first growing season or two.

Bare root trees are also grown in the field, but harvested while relatively small. The soil is gently removed from their root systems, which are then dipped in a moisture retaining gel that coats the roots. Bare root trees are much easier to ship, due to their very light weight and typically small size. It is usually advisable to soak the roots in a bucket of water for at least 8 hours prior to planting bare root trees.

Containerized trees weigh much less and are easier to handle than B&B or bare root trees. Since containerized trees are grown in the pot they are sold in, they have a much more extensive root system. However, the disadvantages are that if left too long, in the same container, these roots can become "pot-bound" and establish a circular pattern which can girdle and kill the tree.

perfect depth mimics nature
Same Depth
The primary concern when planting any tree, is to plant the tree so that the root flare (the spot where the main roots leave the trunk) is just at final grade. Tree roots require oxygen, and oxygen is only available in the upper layer of soil. Oxygen availability decreases rapidly with depth in the soil.

Clean cuts
Any torn or damaged roots should be pruned straight across with a sharp pair of hand pruners or sharp loppers. This stimulates rapid resprouting from the location of the clean cut, and helps the tree to regenerate roots as quickly as possible.

A 2-inch layer of mulch is one of the cheapest and most effective health treatments we can provide for trees. The best mulch consists of com posted organic matter such as leaves or wood chips. Pine straw makes an excellent top layer - it looks great, and will break down over time to provide additional organic matter. Do NOT remove old organic matter when adding new mulch - why would you take away material that provides essential elements for tree growth? Instead, top dress the old mulch with a thin layer of new pine straw. And don't pile mulch up against the trunk like a volcano - this encourages disease and decay in the root crown and lower trunk, and can kill trees over time.

Bracing may not be necessary for small containerized or balled-and-burlaped trees, except in very open, windy areas.  Most people, including many professionals, tend to use rope or wire in a garden hose and stake the tree down tightly to the ground. This outdated practice damages the bark (the hose doesn't dissipate the pressure of the narrow wire or twine), and doesn't allow the trunk to move in a moderate wind, which is necessary for the tree to develop trunk taper and stability.

This is a better way to brace a newly planted tree:


In the photo above, 2 metal T posts are driven on opposite sides of the tree.  Bracing is relatively high on the tree, which provides the most support under a load (wind). 

center loop allows movement 

MOST IMPORTANTLY, the bracing is attached in a way that supports the tree loosely, allowing it to move in a moderate wind. The idea is to provide support only when needed (for example in a high wind), to prevent the tree from uprooting. The tree isn't going to get away, so there's no need to stake it down tightly.

water bucket, oak
Water is critical to successful tree planting. During dry periods, supplemental water should be provided to newly planted trees. Soaker hose or plastic containers with small "weep" holes can effectively water new trees. A plastic 5 gallon bucket with a small (1/8") hole drilled in the bottom near the edge is a very economical and effective method of watering new trees. Just fill the bucket 2 or 3 times a week during dry periods. Once the tree is established, usually after a couple of summers, depending on its size at transplanting, it can fend for water itself.