Tips and Tricks for Planting Trees

April 20, 2020

Tips and Tricks for Planting Trees

Have some trees you need to plant? Here are our top tips and tricks for planting. Trust me, you won't want to skip these essential steps!

Location Location Location

The first thing to consider even before getting your shovel is location. Consider the light, soil and moisture conditions of your location. How prone it is to animals and pests? What about competition from other trees, grasses, weeds, etc.? The physical space, structures and final size of the tree/roots? The aesthetic and view it will create is also an important consideration. 


Most fruit trees prefer lots of direct sunlight so try to pick a place that is not shaded. If you only have shaded locations be sure it's at least getting lots of morning or evening sun. Anything planted on the south side of tall trees or structures is likely to do very poorly. 


Fruit trees also prefer soil that is fertile, with a good consistency. Avoid soils that are totally sand or clay. You want a good mix of both and also lots of organic material. You can do a quick test to see if it's clay or sand by squeezing and rolling it out when it's moist. Squeeze it tight; if it's wet, slimy and forms a tight ball with your finger imprint and stays like that it's mostly clay. If it doesn't hold any shape and crumbles, it's mostly sand. Next, roll it between your hands into a ribbon. If you can dangle the ribbon and it stays intact it's mostly clay. If you can't make a ribbon at all it's mostly sand. Ideally you want to form a ribbon, but want it to break when you try to dangle it or stand it up. 

Here's a more advanced "Jar Test" that is often recommended.

You can also consider the pH of your soil although for most this isn't totally necessary. 

Try not to overly amend the planting hole as this can cause you tree roots to stay within this confined place. 


The ideal soil is usually referred to as moist and well drained. The problem with sand is that it won't hold moisture and clay won't drain properly. Some references suggested digging a one foot/one foot test hole to check (if the bottom is wet it's already too wet) then pour some water in. If it's all gone with in 10 minutes it's draining too fast and if the water sits for more than 3-4 hours it's not draining well. Ideally it should be about 30 minutes. Of course this is dependent on weather, season and current moisture in the soil. 

Here's a link to a even more scientific and precise method.

Also consider your access to water. You will want to water it at least weekly during the first few years, especially during the heat of the summer. 


Learn about how prone your tree is to animals and pests so that you can take measures to protect them. Fruit and berry trees are favourites for many destructive animals. Keep in mind you will want to protect the trunk and low branches over the winter from mice, rodents, rabbits and deer. When the fruit is present they can also be damaged by deer and bear, and birds are notorious for beating you to the fruit. 


Keep in mind what else is planted nearby and currently in place. Very large trees will have very large root systems and even though they may seam far away, they are likely taking a lot of the nutrients and moisture from the soil. The same goes for tall grasses and weeds. Many of them have well established roots that can compete and choke out your young trees. I've seen trees planted in very fertile ideal soil struggle to grow and get established because they are surrounded by tall grasses. My own trees seem to be struggling after being planted too close to many large pines and spruces. 

Physical space

Keep in mind just how big your tree is going to get. Standard apple trees and pear trees can become quite big and will quickly overwhelm a small space. The roots of many trees and some tall shrubs can also reek havoc if planted to close to houses, foundations and field beds.  Some plants like to spread and sucker, and others prefer to stay put. Many work very well to train into bushy hedges and rows, and others will resist this training. 

Another thing to consider is that some plants will "sucker" or develop new plants and growth from the root system. They can quickly overwhelm a bed, but can be easily managed by mowing. Sucking plants include, raspberries, seabuckthorn, aronia, saskatoons, gooseberries, buffalo berry, sand cherry, elderberries and sour cherries. 


Some trees can be very beautiful with long lasting flowers in the spring that are highly fragrant. Some also have beautiful red foliage in the fall or berries that persist and add colour over the winter. 

The opposite can also be true! Some form dense thickets with sharp thorns and have boring or tiny flowers. These may not be something you want to plant close to the house or trails. 

Now that you've choose the ideal spot it's time to grab the shovel!

Preparing your tree

I know I said we were going to dig, but you need to make sure your tree is safe and ready first. 

This will depend on if you're planting a bare rooted or container tree and the type. If it's bare rooted, be sure to keep the roots wrapped, covered and moist until you plant it. They can dry out very fast if left in the sun even for a few minutes. If you're not going to plant right away you can consider putting it in pot or prepared bed until you're ready. For container plants, keep them well watered and in the shade. They are usually too big for the containers they are in and can dry out fast and often need daily watering. 

Digging your hole

Take the shovel in both hands and drive it down into the dirt. Youu can also step onto the shovel to add force to break the ground. Lower the shovel to create leverage and... (sorry I know you don't need shovel instructions just having a bit of fun).

Try to dig your hole at least 2 to 3 times the width of the pot or root spread for bare rooted plants. Try not to dig much deeper or only slightly deeper then the pot. Have a slight slope to the outside of your hole. Try to loosen the soil around the outside of your hole (this is especially important in clay or firm soils). Rough up the sides with a shovel or pick. You want to avoid creating "glazed" or straight sides that will make it hard for the growing roots to penetrate. 

While I dig I usually set the grasses or top portion into one pile and the rest of the dirt I'm removing into a second pile. 


tree planting

Preparing your tree


Now that it's ready to plant you will need to take it out of the pot and get it ready. Usually the pots release pretty easily with some gentle tapping but don't worry if it requires a bit of force. It's okay and maybe preferable if the clump of dirt breaks up a bit. 

This picture below is an extreme example of a root bound tree, but keep it in mind when you are getting your potted plant ready. 

If your seeing very thick roots circling the outside, you will actually want to cut or prune them. If it's only thin roots, usually it's sufficient to rub up the sides with your hands to loosen and break any tiny circling roots. The same goes for the bottom as they often create tangled messes and need to be loosen and teased a bit. If it's severely root bound it's often suggested to actually cut or break up the mass slightly, but you also need to be delicate. Once again container trees are often too big for the root systems and you don't want to throw them out of balance. This is where it's often suggested to prune the tree heavily during the first year of planting (but don't worry we do that part for you and help select an ideal shape for your tree).

This is one reason I'm really starting to prefer bare root plants, as they have a much better balance of roots to tree, they are easier to plant "correctly", they experience much less transplant shock and out perform potted trees after a few years. The other big concern for me is the environmental impact of all the plastic pots and containers as well as the unnecessary pollution of transporting unnecessary dirt all around. 

Putting the tree in the hole

Surprised this is an actual step when it seams so simple, well I'm about to make it complicated!...well just a bit.


The first thing to consider is the orientation of the tree. I usually suggest facing the lowest branch to the southwest, this is where the sun is the strongest. By planting it in this direction it prevents a higher branch from shading the rest of the tree, and also helps to shade the trunk and base of the tree from intense heat. 


The next thing that's important is the depth of the tree. Since all of the hardy fruit trees (apple, pear and plums) are grafted onto a different root stock it's important to plant at the right height. There is a collar or graft union where they meet. It's important to try to plant this just a ground level, or slightly above. If the graft union is buried occasionally the top tree can develop it's own root system and take over from the hardy roots. But if you plant much too high the roots with be prone to sending up suckers and new growth, the roots can be prone to injury and the union can be weaker. 


If you are planting in a very windy area you can consider staking the tree loosely for a couple years, but most of the time it's not required and can actually prevent the trees from growing strong trunks. 

Spread out the roots

This is another advantage of bare root trees in that you can actually spread out and train the roots. You can give them ample space and keep them well apart. If a root is quite long and reaches the outside of your hole, try to dig it a slight trench or cut it, don't wrap it to fit the hole. 

Fill your hole and cover the tree

This is where I like to use the grasses and top layer of my digger for the bottom of the hole, it's usually more fertile and the grasses can rot, slowly feeding the roots of the tree. Otherwise what to add to your hole is a topic of much recent changes and the new research indicates not overly amending your planting hole. If you add too much rich fertilizer or compost, the tree roots will not be interested in moving out from your hole and can actually get root bound. Try to add the removed soil and a bit of top soil in when planting. The debate it still ongoing whether you want to add a small amount of bone meal when planting, but if you do be sure to spread it out and mix well. Otherwise do not add any other fertilizer when planting. 

Pack down the soil and water thoroughly, you will likely need to add a bit more soil after and level it better after the first watering and packing. Try not to create a mound when you're down, but a gentle depression that can help to contain the water when planting. Sometimes people also create a slight raised ring around the drip line to hold a bit more water. Just be careful if you're planting in heavy clay soil as too much water can sit in your planting hole. This is the one situation when sometimes it's actually recommended to plant your tree slightly higher then surrounding land.

Mulch and protect your tree

 It's always ideal to add a thick layer of mulch on top of the hole and around the drip line of the plants. These will slowly decompose and feed your trees for year to come. It also helps prevent drying out and controls weeds around the tree. Some people recommend newspaper or cardboard below the mulch to help suppress the weed coming through. Avoid any landscaping fabric or synthetic products. You can mulch with anything from dry leaves to wood chips, or mature compost and manure if your looking to add fertility to your soil. Be sure the mulch doesn't sit against the trunk of the tree. This can create moisture issues and also give a place for rodents and bugs to infect your tree. 

The truck can also be prone to rodent damage for the first few years, this is especially a problem in the winter or when planting in tall grass or fields. A plastic collar or tree guard will work fine. They are usually white to prevent holding heat. Be sure to inspect underneath regularly as many insects sometimes nest underneath and you also don't want to hold moisture there. Be sure to remove them once the tree gets too large and they are tight. They are also not required once the trunk starts to get thick and woody as they are not longer desirable snacks. 

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