How to Plant (and Care) for Your Tree

Updated: Nov 1


Planting trees is one of the most important actions you can take for the health of our water. This video from Tennessee Environmental Council features Green Interchange CEO, John McFadden, who will show you how to plant a bare-root tree seedling.


If you are picking up trees at our Plant a BIGGER Tree for Tennessee event in November 2021, this video shows how to plant a container tree. You may also follow the instructions below for planting container trees.


Determining Where to Plant: Some factors to keep in mind include proximity to your home or other structures, the amount and direction of the sun, location of overhead and underground utility lines (use the “Call Before You Dig” 811 hotline), and where any fruit or cones will drop - for instance you may not want fruit or sap on your driveway. Remember the tree branches and roots will continue to grow over time!


Digging the Hole: For bare root, ball and burlap, or container trees, the first step is finding the root flare. This is where the trunk gets wider near the bottom. The root flare should be above ground, not buried. For bare root trees the planting hole will not need to be just deep enough to accommodate the roots on your tree, and will probably not need to be very wide. You can build a cone of dirt within the hole to support the tree and roots. If your tree is planted in a container or has a root ball, the planting hole should be at least twice the width of the root ball or container to encourage the roots to grow into the surrounding soil. The sides of the planting hole should be sloped. The hole should be no deeper than the root ball or container to prevent the tree from settling or being planted too deeply.


Tree Preparations & Planting: For bare root trees be sure to keep the roots covered and moist until you are ready to plant, then place the tree on a “cone” of dirt so that the root flare (where the trunk meets the root and appears wider) is above ground. For a container or a balled and burlapped (B&B) tree: Remove the container or burlap/rope. If the root flare is not visible, gently remove soil from the top of the ball/soil until the tree is again at proper soil level. Check for large circling roots. If present, use pruning shears to make a clean cut. (Girdling roots will continue to grow in a circle, resulting in the death of the tree.). If the circling roots are fibrous, make 3 or 4 vertical slits into the sides of the rootball about 1 inch deep. Remove any remaining labels, tags, wire, burlap, or rope from trunk & branches to prevent the girdling as it grows.


Backfill: Use the same soil that was taken out of the hole. If the soil is very poor and appears to need topsoil, increase the hole size and sparingly mix in some local topsoil (avoid using potting soil, peat moss, and soil amendments). Remove stones and other debris. Fill the hole halfway with backfill then water. Finish filling the hole with the backfill and water again. Make sure to work the soil around the ball firmly to eliminate any air pockets. Also, make sure the tree is vertical and properly supported, but do not pack the soil around the trunk.

Mulch: Mulch helps conserve soil moisture, reduces the competition from unwanted weeds, keeps lawn mowers and string trimmers from damaging the trunk, and moderates soil temperature extremes. The area around the tree should be mulched with wood chips, bark chips, or pine mulch. (Do not use sawdust, black plastic, or grass clippings as mulch.) The mulch should be 3 to 4 inches thick and cover the entire planting area and beyond. Place it in a donut or tire shape around the base of the tree. It should look like a large ring around the tree that slopes down to the tree flare, not like a mountain or volcano with a tree coming out of the center. The mulch must be kept away from the trunk of the tree to keep insects away and prevent the trunk from being excessively wet.


Trunk Wraps & Staking: Research indicates there are no benefits from using trunk wraps and it may encourage damaging insects or diseases. Staking is not necessary if the tree has a proper size root ball and has not been pruned too high. Stakes, or plastic, non-adhesive marking ribbon, may help prevent lawnmowers and string trimmers from damaging the tree. If staking is needed for support, attach them so the tree has some sway. NEVER leave wires or straps on the tree for more than one growing season.

Fertilizing: Generally new trees do not need fertilizers. Using the wrong product could damage the already reduced root system. Fertilize the first year only if a specific problem develops.


Pruning: Prune only the branches that are dead, broken or severely deformed during the first growing season. Buds produce hormones that stimulate root growth, so keep the removal of buds to a minimum.


When to plant: The best time of year to plant your tree is November through April. If you receive a bare root seedling, plant it as soon as you can. Keep the roots moist until you are ready to plant, and if you can't plant right away, keep the tree(s) in a cool, dark location.


Watering: Trees must be watered every 7 days during dry periods, warm temperatures, or when planted April-October. If temperatures are too warm, you may choose to plant your tree in a container where you can keep it well hydrated, and wait until fall to plant it in the ground.


Trees provide habitat for wildlife, shade, oxygen output, and carbon dioxide absorption, and cleaner air. They also provide water filtration, and improved water quality by helping prevent runoff, erosion, and chemical and sediment flow into streams and rivers.


This information was adapted from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Division of Forestry. The image below was provided by the Hamilton County Soil Conservation District with descriptions of tree species distributed during the April 2021 Plant a Tree for Tennessee event. Click image for a PDF version.