Planting Trees

I have over the years killed an amazing number of trees.  This is entirely excluding the trees send by  a few companies that make their living by sending people dead trees.  The ration of dead to living has started to change quite a bit in the last few years.  No magic to the difference, simply a bit of better methodology.

Here are a few of the lesser known rules I follow.

1. Drainage.  I have clay soil in most places.  Most trees will not live If I plant them in a clay hole.  The test is to dig the hole, and fill it with water.  If it is empty in 15 minutes, then a tree can go there.  Otherwise, I don’t get to plant the tree.

2. Hole shape.  Smooth sided, round holes are bad.  Rough, triangular holes are good.  The roots will circle and not spread in a hard soil, smooth, round hole.  In a Triangular hole, the root will find a corner and push further on.  A triangle will make for a good start on stability.

3. Tree handling.  Hurt the pot, don’t hurt the tree.  Do not pick up the tree by the trunk.  Do not pull the tree out of the pot by the trunk.  This does not happen in nature, and will damage the small root hairs and create stress that a tree is unprepared for.  Supporting it by the trunk on the side is not so bad, wind creates that sort of pressure on a tree, so it is ready for it.  In this case get ready to get dirty, pick up the root by the ball.

4. Water the tree before removing it from the pot.  This will reduce the damage to the root hairs by drying.

So far this fall, I have planted 23 trees.  In this case, all of them are really tough, and have been planted in great soil, or soil that I have been preparing and amending for four years.  I suspect that they will all do fine.


5 comments to Planting Trees

  • Skip J.

    Excellent advice for our Gulf Coast clay soils – or clay soils anywhere. The only thing I do differently is to dig a round hole into the clay twice as big as I need – and then take the shovel and tear divots out of the side of the hole where it becomes many sided when thru. Same thing done a different way, but for the same reason…..

    Then I fill the remainder of the hole with a mix of various soil amendments, comb out the roots and plant the ball into the amendments. It gives the roots time to spread out into the soil mix before hitting the clay wall. Of course, planting species that will live wet help too.

    I have some photos somewhere of our last tree planting job that show this being done into exactly the waterholding clay hole that you describe. Let me see….


  • I suspect that combing roots is where a bonsai expert’s skills will come into play. Some trees I take great care to comb out. Others, I am scared to do much more than loosen the bound roots much. The heavier roots are usually quite inflexible, so often I just free the flexible ones from the bundle and try to snake them out, often adding a long channel to the hole to bury the root.

    I prune the tops, and I try to comb the roots, but them things is brittle and often tied together. To properly comb the roots, I have to wash out all the soil. Some trees seem to comb out very easily. Others are quite impossible.

    After combing out the root, I often find that I should remove several of the roots as redundant or likely to strangle themselves. Most guides to root pruning show a before and after picture with little guidance for the process.

    I prefer to plant trees that hardly care if you groom the roots, or are small enough for that to be less of an issue.

    I suspect that the next big step in my tree planting skills is to get more involved in grooming the root ball. I pity the the poor trees that will suffer for my education.


  • Skip J.

    Oh yes….

    “After combing out the root, I often find that I should remove several of the roots as redundant or likely to strangle themselves. Most guides to root pruning show a before and after picture with little guidance for the process.”

    Instruction books are my bane…. they trick you into thinking you can learn it from their book, and then after you are committed to purchase of tools and materials – force you to learn it (whatever it is..)the hard way..

    I will say my root pruning and combing definitely did improve after starting bonsais – but my previous decades work planting trees jump started my bonsai “practice”!


  • Skip J.

    Followup: Bob; which species of trees are you planting?


  • Citrus Mostly. A few date palms.


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