How to Plant a Tree So That it Doesn't Die | PITH + VIGOR by Rochelle Greayer

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How to Plant a Tree So That it Doesn’t Die


Whose fitbit steps have multiplied in these last few weeks?  I absolutely love watching the fitness numbers tick up as I bustle around the garden, spring cleaning, pruning and installing some new plants. It’s the epitome of the good type of multi-tasking.  

I’ve got a few significant projects that I’ve taken on for this spring season and I am looking forward to sharing each of them with you and hopefully passing on a few tips that you might be able to use in your garden as well.

The first two projects are out in the front of my house.  

For years, I’ve used the planting bed adjacent to my front door as a holding area for new things that didn’t yet have a permanent home.  It is a mish mashed mess that I am tired of looking at. I’m longing for a cohesive design that highlights the house (especially now that it is freshly painted!) and that technically works a lot better than the mixed up beds and the patchy grass that refuses to thrive.

Over the winter I launched two classes to teach garden design and planting design (more about that in future posts) – and I used the area as my demonstration garden as I taught students step-by-step how to  create a master plan and then building off of that, how to create a detailed planting plan, plant sourcing and installation tips.

And now, as spring is finally here and I have a plan in hand – I’ve been in a flurry of garden renovation energy.

Gilmour has sponsored this post and another and I will be using some of their watering tools as I get all these new plants installed.

How to Plant a Tree So That it Doesn't Die

Before – I’ll share the full after when all the plants are in next week!

Q. Where do you start on a project like this (i.e. replanting a garden bed)?  

A. Biggest first. In other words, start with the trees and shrubs.

My plan required removing an extremely established Pierus that was taking over the front steps and blocking views in all directions. It was a sad day to take such a beautiful shrub down – especially as it was in full bloom and the bumble bees were loving on it. As I cut and dug, I was choking back tears at the loss. But I was heartened that as I surgically removed this mother of a shrub, I discovered three babies growing underneath and I was able to transplant them to new and better areas of my garden.  

With the giant shrub gone, I have space to implement my plan for drifts of plants that are anchored with a new and arguably much more interesting focal point – a  Beni Kawa Japanese Maple.

There are a million (or so) varieties of Japanese maple and I encourage you to do a deep dive on the species instead of just settling for the standard ‘Bloodgood’ variety (though they are very nice and you can’t argue with a Bloodgood). I just like to find something more special and unique and in the world of Japanese Maples you don’t have to look too far to find something a whole lot more exciting.

Beni Kawa is perfectly sized for my garden (12’-15’ in all directions) and the thing I love the most is the red bark and the ombre (yellow to red) leaves.  It is quite striking even before it has fully leafed out.

Beni Kawa Japanese Maple - How to Plant a Tree So That it Doesn't Die

‘Beni Kawa’ Japanese Maple is prized for its bright coral red bark and beautiful leaves.

Q. How do you plant a tree so that it doesn’t die?  

A. Let’s just say the devil is always in the details.

I think we all know the basics – Dig a hole, put the bottom of the tree in the hole, bury it, and water it.  Easy. Right?

How to plant a tree So That it Doesn't Die

Zippy is an expert hole digger and gives this wide but not too deep hole a paws up.

How to plant a tree So That it Doesn't Die

But here is where things can go wrong –

Have you ever heard of the $5 plant in the $50 hole?  The idea behind it is good advice. Spend time on the hole and make it good – because a cheap plant can become great if planted  correctly. And tree’s aren’t cheap – especially Japanese maples – so make extra sure you invest in the hole.

The most important element of the hole is depth.  You DON’T want it to be too deep. This is super important.  Here is another garden cliché (that is also good advice) –



‘Plant it high – it won’t die, Plant it low – it won’t grow.’


Err on the side of making your hole too shallow rather than too deep.  And if you get all over ambitious toward that step goal and go too deep, just fill it back in with some of the dirt you dug and mix in some compost for good measure.

How to Plant a Tree So That it Doesn't Die

A good way to check the height is to use the shovel to measure.  Dip the handle in the hole and grab it with you hand where it meets the ground level, then use that measure to make sure that the flare of the tree is 1-3 inches higher.  That way, once you have maneuvered the tree into the hole, you won’t have to wrestle it back out again to add more dirt beneath.

And here is a little tip for moving heavy unplanted trees around your garden – dish sleds. The kid’s dish sleds are my savior for moving big stuff in the garden.  I can basically roll stuff into them (unlike a wheelbarrow where some amount of hefting is required – and sometimes that is just too much) and then I can slide-drag it pretty easily.  Also – it is easy to roll off into the hole.

A kids dish sled makes for an excellent way to move heavy trees around the garden - How to Plant a Tree So That it Doesn't Die

Have compost and mulch ready.  I didn’t mulch this project yet because I still have the rest of the planting to come (I’ll share that next week). But here is the order I always follow – plant, water, mulch, water again.  Why water again? A lot of mulches will lock into place if they get a good soaking (they expand a bit with the water then re-contract) which will help them to stay put. If you are using buckwheat hulls or another similarly lightweight mulch it can blow away or move around a lot.

If the root ball isn’t wet, water it before you unwrap it. Trees need lots of water when being transplanted and this helps to keep it intact while you maneuver it to be just right.  

The hole you dig should be wider than the root ball (I go for about 2-2.5x wider) and before you start filling in the edges you should do two things… fill part of the hole with compost, and water.  I fill that hole right up and wait for it to drain out before beginning to refill dirt around the root ball.

My tree is balled and burlapped which means that it was grown in a field and then dug and wrapped up for sale.  This is different than trees that are container grown (meaning they have been in a container their whole lives).  With a balled and burlapped tree you only need to remove the wrapping – you don’t need to worry about scoring or unwinding the roots.  If your tree is container grown, you should inspect the roots and if they are winding around or very dense, loosen them up and encourage them to spread out rather than continuing to swirl (which isn’t good for the health of the tree).

Advice: If you have a choice of a balled tree or a container tree – all other things being equal – I’d choose the balled tree – it is just going to establish better in your garden.

About Tree Flares and Tree Grafts - How to Plant a Tree So That it Doesn't Die

Sometimes with balled and burlapped trees, the digging process caused the dirt to be pushed up the stem.  When up wrap the roots, you may have to move a few inches of dirt away from the stem to re-expose the flares and the graft. The wide part at the base is where this tree was grafted.

Q. What is the flare of the tree?

A. The flare is the area at the bottom of the tree where it meets the ground.  

At some point the stem will come down and start to spread out to the sides as the roots go into the ground.  These spreading fingers are called flares and they should NOT be fully buried. If you bury the flares, either when you are planting it or later if you mound up too much mulch around the base, you are endangering the health of the tree.  

Also, many trees are grafted – which means that the grower attached a stronger root stock to a different tree top. This is done when trees are young and helps more decorative trees that maybe don’t have as much vigor to grow off a root stock that is stronger. This gives us a much wider selection of beautiful garden trees that are stronger and healthier.  

If your tree was grafted (BTW – most all Japanese Maples are – as are many fruit trees) then you will be able to see the graft.  Make sure your don’t bury the graft. Sometimes it is a foot or two up the stem, but sometimes it is really low – just barely above the flares – so make sure you keep the dirt well away from this graft too.

Use the fill that you dug out – along with a nearly equal amount of compost to refill the hole around the root ball.  If you have dug grass out (as I have) turn those clumps upside down and use them to back in the hole or tip the tree if the root ball isn’t level.  Grass can be vigorous, but you don’t have to worry that these upside down buried clumps will re-grow – and they can be handy to fill and wedge things into place.

How to Plant a Tree So That it Doesn't Die

Fill the hole with water and let it soak in before you start backfilling.  Use a sprayer doesn’t blast the roots. Gilmour’s Thumb Control Watering Nozzle with Swivel Connect sprayer has many settings that you can rotate though, put it on the softest one where the water comes out like gentle rain.  This setting is also good for dogs who want a quick drink without feeling like they are drinking from a fire hose.

Q. So now that I have my tree planted – what do I do?

A. Newly planted trees need special attention if they are going to survive.

The main reason transplanted trees and plants fail is due to not getting enough water.  Yes, there are other factors (in the case of trees, shock is also a worry) – but mostly it is water.  And when I say mostly, I mean almost always. There is a common misperception that rain and irrigation systems are enough but the reality is they usually aren’t.  You have to water new trees – plan to do this by hand to make sure they get the TLC they need.

Gilmour hose and sprayer nozzle - How to plant a tree so that it doesn't die

Keep the hose and sprayer handy because you need to water new trees often. In the gardening season I tend to get a little lazy and not even turn off the water at the spigot.  A good hose like the Flexogen Super Duty Hose should not leak or drip water – that way you can just use the switch on the sprayer so that you always have quick water on demand.  Also, Gilmour’s Thumb Control Watering Nozzle with Swivel Connect sprayer doesn’t get you and the hose tied up in knots – the swivel head makes it easy to move around without a twisted hose. 

Here is a guide to how often you should water your new tree.

Daily for a week


Every other day for 2 weeks


Then 2-3 times per week for a year.


Got it?  Water, water, water!

How to Plant a Tree So That it Doesn't Die

If you are watering and your tree starts losing leaves or looking sick – it may have a  case of shock. There are a variety of products on the market for fertilizing trees, but for emergency shock treatment I like a product called Super Thrive.  A little goes a long way (and don’t over do it!), all you need is a few drops mixed into your watering to make a difference. If you are concerned, you could always add a couple drops to the bowlful of water you created before you start back filling. Super Thrive is a liquid and it will dilute in the water and spread through the root ball and the surrounding dirt as the water drains away.

If you think your new tree is in shock, act fast. A few days can make a difference, so try to get it emergency care as soon as you can.

I’ve got lots more plants on the way as I say goodbye to the grass and hello to much better ground covers and plants.  More on lawn replacement in part two!



This post is sponsored by Gilmour. All opinions are my own.

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  1. Stephen Shaw says:

    Inside that ball is clay and roots that have taken on the shape of that ball. Hopefully there aren’t circling roots, but you don’t know that unless you bareroot the tree. The best way to plant a tree is to bareroot it. Yes aftercare is critical, but the only way to be sure that roots are growing radially away from the trunk is to bareroot it. Additionally, you never add compost to the hole. That will simply encourage roots to stay in the hole you dug and not go out into the surrounding native soil. If your soil is poor, then amend by adding a 1/2 inch of compost in a wide circle around the tree to encourage root growth outwards. Other than these things the article is spot on. Check out Linda Chalker-Scott from Washington State University on the bareroot planting of trees.

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