How to Plant a Tree That Will Thrive for Years

Updated November 29, 2021
Family planting a tree

Trees are the crowning glory of any garden. While shrubs, perennials, annuals, vegetables, herbs, and lawn all absolutely have their place, nothing quite anchors a garden the way a tree can. And not only can trees make your landscape look amazing, but they provide habitat and sometimes food for wildlife and can even help lower your energy costs as well. Time to get planting!

When to Plant a Tree

Spring and fall are generally the best times to plant a tree. This gives the tree time to establish itself in its new home before intense summer heat or winter cold arrives.

In areas without cold winters, trees can be planted during the winter. In northern areas, spring planting gives the tree more time to get established before the harsh winter.

Either way, the absolute worst time to plant a tree is during the summer. Conditions are too stressful, between high temperatures and dry conditions, for the tree to get off to a good start in your landscape.

How to Plant a Tree

The two most important considerations when it comes to planting a tree are choosing the right tree and placing it in the right spot.

Steps to Plant a Tree

Once you've chosen a tree, you'll need to prepare your site for planting.

Getting Ready for Tree Planting

There are a few important steps you'll want to take before you plant any trees in your garden.

  • It's best to do plenty of research before you buy or order a tree. Trees vary widely in their needs for space, light, moisture, and soil conditions. Evaluate the spot where you plan on planting the tree, taking note of the light conditions. Is the soil especially moist or is it dry? Are there overhead power lines nearby? Is the spot close to structures that could get damaged as the tree grows? Taking all of this into consideration now will save you from headaches later on.
  • Take the time to choose a tree that will thrive in the conditions you can provide. Consult guides specific to your region or seek help from professionals at your local nursery or garden center.
  • Before digging, contact your utility company, so they can mark the locations of underground lines. This is an absolutely necessary step, and you'll save yourself from so many potential issues if you do this simple (free) step before you begin.
  • If your new tree is going to be part of a larger bed and there's currently grass or other plants growing in the area, you'll want to remove them. If it's not going to be a bed, it's still a good idea to remove an area of sod at least three feet in diameter so that you can mulch easily around the tree.

Planting the Tree

Once you've done all of your research and prep, and once you have your tree home, it's time to plant.

  1. Dig a hole a foot deeper than and twice as wide as the root ball of the new tree. Loosen the soil at the bottom and sides of the hole, so roots will be able to easily penetrate the soil.
  2. Gently remove the tree from the container. If roots are growing in a circular pattern around the root ball, slice through the roots on a couple of sides of the root ball. For trees wrapped in burlap, remove the string or wire to remove the burlap. Gently separate circling roots on the root ball.
  3. Guide the tree into the hole. Build the soil up and around the roots if necessary, so the tree is at the same soil level as it was originally grown.
  4. Straighten the tree in the hole. Before you begin backfilling, have someone view the tree from several directions to confirm that the tree is straight. Once you begin backfilling, it is difficult to reposition the tree.
  5. Backfill the hole with existing soil that has been amended with compost. A mix of 80% original soil and 20% compost is ideal. You want the roots to get off to a good start, but you also want them to grow out into the native soil. If the soil in the hole is much looser and more full of nutrients than the soil around it, the roots are likely to just stay as close to the root ball as they can, rather than extending into the surrounding soil, and that's ultimately bad for the tree.
  6. Water the tree. Give the tree a slow, deep watering. This will settle the soil, get rid of any air pockets, and provide essential water for the tree as it begins getting established.
  7. Mulch around the tree. Apply a two to four inch deep layer of mulch, such as wood chips, pine straw, or shredded bark, in a three foot wide circle around the tree. This will keep weeds at bay, conserve moisture, and will protect the tree from damage from lawn equipment.
Planting a tree. Man digging a hole in the ground in summertime

How Much Does It Cost to Plant a Tree?

If you're planting a tree yourself, your only cost will be the cost of the tree itself, plus any tools and mulch you might need to buy. Most trees cost between $40 and $200, though of course cost varies depending on what type of tree it is and how rare or sought-after it might be. Size also plays a large role in the cost--larger trees cost much more to purchase, plus there are higher delivery costs involved as well.

If you prefer to have a landscaping company plant your tree for you (which would be necessary if you're planting a large tree), the cost ranges to around $150 to $300 for a small tree, and up to $1,500 or more for a larger tree, again, scaling depending on how large the tree is.

Caring for Your New Tree

Caring for and monitoring the tree once it is planted is an important step in ensuring that your new tree grows healthy and strong. The most important thing to monitor is watering; new trees should be watered regularly for the first three years.

Water Regularly

Keep soil surrounding the tree moist but not soaked. Always feel the soil before watering, as over-watering can also harm the tree. When soil is dry below the surface of the mulch, it's time to water. You will probably need to water at least once a week, barring heavy rain, and more often during hot weather. Continue until mid-fall, tapering off when lower temperatures call for less-frequent watering.

Positive adult man watering a tree

To Stake, or Not to Stake?

Staking new trees often does more harm than good. By allowing the tree to flex a bit in the wind, the trunk and roots both grow stronger than they do if the tree is staked. However, if you're planting the tree in an area with very strong, frequent winds, you might want to stake it. Remove any stakes the following spring after planting.

Fertilizing

Young trees should be fertilized yearly in spring with a complete fertilizer. You don't need to fertilize at planting time, but the following spring, fertilize according to the instructions on whichever fertilizer you're using. After the first three years, trees only need to be fertilized every two to three years.

Monitor Your New Tree Regularly

Take some time every couple of weeks to look your new tree over. Check for signs of damage or stress, which could be due to insects or diseases. It's much easier (and better for the tree) to address any issues as soon as possible.

Plant Now, Enjoy for Years to Come

There's a saying that the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, but the second-best time is now. In a few years, you'll be sitting in the shade of the tree you planted--but only if you plant one today! With these tips, your tree is sure to get a good, healthy start in your garden.

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