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How to plant a tree

Planting

Make certain you have all the equipment you will need. You may need all or some of the following:

  • some secateurs
  • a spade
  • a garden fork
  • a big hammer
  • nails
  • a wheelbarrow
  • fertiliser
  • mycorrhizal fungi
  • a stake and tie
  • mulch or a mulch mat
  • and finally but most importantly, a nice drink of water (for the tree) and a beer (for you).

The planting process involves the following:

  • Place the tree you are going to plant in a safe and sheltered location. For bare root trees, cover the roots in soil to protect them. If they are going to be exposed for more than 10 minutes it is best to place the base of the tree in a plastic bag to prevent the roots from drying out
  • Dig the planting hole to a size large enough to fit the spread root system of the tree and to a depth that will leave the tree at same level as it was in the pot or nursery. This level can be normally be determined by soil marks on the stem. Fork the sides and bottom of the hole to help break up the surrounding soil
  • If a stake is required it should hammered into the ground at this stage. Tree stakes are normally only used to support the root-system of the tree. Therefore high stakes are often not needed and should be avoided where possible. A short stake will allow the natural movement of the tree, encouraging root and stem growth and reducing the chance of the tree snapping once the stake is removed
  • Remove the tree from the pot or bag and loosen the roots. If your tree has been container-grown and the roots seem to be growing in circles or pot bound, they should be spread out. Prune any broken or damaged roots at this stage with a pair of sharp secateurs
  • Position the tree in the planting hole and spread out the roots. Make sure the tree is at the correct height and positioned upright in line with the stake. It is often worth asking a friend to look at the tree from distance to check this
  • Start to backfill the hole with soil or a soil and fertiliser mix, if appropriate. Remember to work the soil in well around all the roots. Then firm the soil down approximately every 15cm until the soil is level with the root collar of the tree. (The root collar is where the soil staining is from when the tree was growing in the nursery.)
  • Make certain that the tree is secure then attach it to the top of the stake using a strap and spacer. Avoid using wire or string, because this can damage the bark and kill your tree. The spacers are to ensure that the tree doesn’t rub against the stake
  • Put down a one metre circle of mulch around the base of the tree. This will help keep weeds under control, protect the base of the tree and reduce moisture loss. Suitable forms of mulch could include bark, wood chip, gravel or even a square of old carpet
  • Prune away any branches that may have been damaged during planting
  • Remember to water the tree regularly during the first two years, especially during the summer and dry spells.

As the tree grows, the tie and stake will require checking and adjusting if necessary. The stake should be removed completely once the tree can support itself. This will normally be within one to three years.

It is important to keep the area around the tree weed free, replacing the mulch when required.

How big?

The size of tree you plant will depend on your requirements, your budget and your patience. Container grown trees can be bought that are over five metres high. This is expensive, however, and may not result in a larger healthier tree after 10 years than if a 60cm bare-rooted tree had been planted.

The larger the tree the more time care and attention it requires before, during and after planting. Even with the added care, larger trees often take longer to establish themselves in their new locations and can grow very little for years after being moved. Larger trees are also more susceptible to disease, drought and wind throw. Large trees have an instant impact on a garden that would take years to produce using younger trees, however.

In contrast, although small trees may look insignificant when first planted, they are inexpensive, quick and easy to plant and will grow and establish rapidly to a good size.

Remember that, whatever the size of tree you plant, it will get bigger. Reducing the size of a tree in the future is likely to cause additional problems and can create lots of wounds in the tree. Reducing the crown of a tree can be very costly if done professionally but it is potentially hazardous if done by an amateur and might only encourage the tree to grow more vigorously.

Types of tree

  • Bare root trees have been grown in open ground and then lifted without soil. These trees tend to be inexpensive and are readily available through nurseries, garden centres and even mail order. Most small deciduous trees are bought bare rooted. The smallest of these trees are the most hardy, inexpensive and quickest to establish if planted correctly
  • Root-balled trees are grown in open ground and lifted with a root ball of soil. These trees are more expensive than bare rooted, but hardier
  • Container-grown trees are grown and sold in a container. These trees tend to be some of the hardiest, as no roots have to be cut to move the tree and the container provides good protection during transport. Most medium-sized trees sold in garden centres will be container grown.

If you are thinking of getting a tree to plant in awkward conditions, such as near power-lines, you would do well to consult the Right Tree Handbook; it gives excellent specifications of fully-grown trees.

When buying a tree

Carefully examine the tree to make sure it is in a good condition and free from any pests and diseases. The roots should be fibrous, moist and undamaged. If the tree has been container-grown, the roots should fill the container but should not be pot-bound. The container should be free from weeds and the tree should have a straight, unblemished stem and large live buds. Take your time to find the best specimen and if you are not satisfied, try somewhere else.