How to… NOT kill a tree


Richard Pratt of Hagley Museum offers tips for planting balled-and-burlap trees.

Many times I have been called upon to look at someone’s tree to see why it was dying only one year after being planted.   It only takes a few seconds to diagnose the cause of the tree death.  It was planted too deep.   This happens quite often when balled and burlap trees are planted.  Most balled and burlap trees come from the nurseries with 2 to 4 inches of extra soil covering up the tree’s root flare.   When planting trees one needs to look for the root flare – the point where the tree’s trunk starts to flare out.  This is the area lowest on the tree trunk just above the where the roots begin and the trunk ends.   The root flare should never be buried in the soil. If you take notice of mature trees in the natural landscape you can’t miss seeing the root flare at the base of the tree, it is where the tree gets wider as it goes into the ground.

What to do.  When you get your tree to the planting site cut the twine holding the burlap around the tree’s root system and then pull the burlap down off the root ball. Now very carefully hose the excess soil from the top of the root ball until you can see the root flare and the beginning of the tree’s root system.   Now you can dig your hole three times the size of your root ball, a saucer-shaped hole is preferred.   For the depth of the hole use you shovel handle to measure from the bottom of the root ball to the bottom of the uncovered root flare.  Dig your hole to that depth.   Now you can plant your tree in the hole at the proper depth.  Make sure that you have completely removed the burlap from the root ball before planting.   Backfill the hole with the soil you just removed from the hole while giving the tree plenty of water as you backfill.    Staking the tree is not needed in most planting situations.   If the tree is unstable or it is in a high wind area you may need to stake the tree.  When staking a tree do not stake it tightly because the tree needs to move in the wind so that trunk will get good taper and the root system will grow in such a way as to give stability to the tree against the prevailing winds. The staking should be no higher 1/3 of the tree’s height and a wide band of soft material should be use to tie around the tree, do not use wire – it will cut into the tree trunk.   After one growing season you should remove the staking.  If you feel the need to mulch, a maximum of 3” is enough and the mulch should kept at least 3” from the root flare.   During the dry season, make sure you water the tree well at least three times a week.   Soak the area on top and around the root ball and then water the area outward from the root ball and into the grassy area around the tree.  Do this and your tree will be happy, healthy, and grow to give you many years of pleasure.   Happy planting!