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How To Plant A Tree

Check out our resources for tree planting and care, including our Tree Planting and Maintenance Guide and our Maintenance Calendar Checklist.

Watch a clip about tree planting and check out other clips on DEC's YouTube Channel.

children help plant tree

Trees provide many benefits to our world. They create the oxygen we breathe, reduce air and water pollution, reduce storm water runoff, provide shade, reduce energy costs, reduce the urban heat island effect, and act as wind breaks, sound barriers, and visual screens. They improve our quality of life in enormous ways.

Trees are among the longest-living organisms on earth, but in urban and suburban areas the average lifespan of a tree is only a fraction of its natural potential. Even in rural areas and forest settings, the early years of a tree's life present unique challenges that require extra care. Choosing the right tree for the right site and following proper planting and care guidance will give your trees the healthy start they need to grow strong and live long.

For more information on planting and choosing the right tree for the right site beyond this webpage, you may contact your local DEC forester.

On this page:

What to Consider Before Purchasing Your Trees

Tree Planting Diagram
Tree Planting Diagram
Click to view larger image

So you want to plant a tree or two (or ten). Before you buy a tree, there are many things to consider to help make sure you select the right tree for the right place so that your tree(s) will live a long and healthy life. A tree lives for many years and it should be thought of like an investment.

There are two major things to consider: what you want the tree to do, and where it is going to be planted.

The Function of the Tree

What purpose do you want the tree to serve? Do you want it to provide shade, a visual screen, act as a windbreak, provide food and habitat for wildlife, prevent soil erosion, improve aesthetics, or compliment existing landscaping? Are you planting to lower your cooling bills in the summer? Or do you want the trees to serve as a stream buffer?

The Planting Site

photo of street with no trees
photo of street with trees

Where is this tree being planted, and what is the site like? The physical aspects of the site will play an important role in how the tree grows and what it is exposed to over time. Make sure you consider:

  • Soil: Take the time to determine what kind of soil the site has. You can find out more about your soil by contacting your local Cornell Cooperative Extension (leaves DEC website) for soil testing kits.
    • Is it usually wet or dry?
    • Is it sandy, loamy, clay, rocky, or a combination?
    • Is the soil acidic?
  • Sunlight:
    • How much light does the location receive throughout the day?
    • Is it partly shaded by other trees or buildings?
  • Wind and weather:
    • Is this site exposed to strong winds or harsh weather?
  • Overhead or underground utilities:
    • Are these near your planting spot?
  • Site size: Trees need lots of space to grow. The majority of a tree's roots (80%) are within the top 18 inches of soil and extend past the tree's canopy width.
    • How close is the sidewalk, buildings, and other structures?
    • In sites with little space for roots to grow (such as along a street), consider using structural soil, a mix of stone and soil that provides room for tree root growth, aeration, drainage, and access to nutrients.
    • Trenches also allow for more root growth than individual tree pits.
  • Road salt: Some trees cannot tolerate high salt conditions.
    • Is the planting site near a roadway that is salted in winter?

Once the site conditions are determined, a tree species, or cultivar, can be chosen to fit those needs and restrictions. The more comprehensive your site assessment, the more likely your tree choice will thrive in its new location.

When to Plant

The best time to plant your tree is late winter/early spring prior to buds opening, or late fall after the tree goes dormant but before the ground freezes. The height of summer is not a good time to plant trees. During that time, they are easily stressed by heat and the lack of adequate water, which is the greatest threat to a newly planted tree's survival. Planting at the right time of year will help your new tree establish itself well by giving it time to grow strong roots before the stresses of winter or summer.

Tree Choices

diagram of grown, balled and burlapped and bare root trees

When you are ready to buy your tree(s), you'll find they can be purchased in one of three ways:

  • bare root,
  • container grown, or
  • balled and burlapped (B&B).

Bare root trees are usually only available through catalogs and are shipped during short periods in the spring and fall. The majority of the trees and shrubs sold by DEC's Nursery are bare root. The benefits of bare root trees include a lower cost per tree, lighter handling weight because there is no soil around the roots, and if dug properly, bare root trees have a greater portion of roots kept intact than B&B trees.

people planting trees

Container grown trees may have roots that encircle the root ball in the pot. Spiral roots can harm the tree and even kill it if they are left to develop, so it is important to unwrap the roots before planting. The benefits of container grown trees are that they usually weigh less than B&B trees, there is less disturbance to the roots when planting containerized trees, and they are available at most nurseries.

Balled and burlapped (B&B) trees are much heavier than bare root trees and lose a substantial amount of roots when dug at the nursery. But a large amount of soil in the root ball does benefit the tree by protecting its roots from injury and helps keep them moist. Roots should be kept covered, out of direct sunlight and moist until the tree can be planted.

How to Plant a Tree

First, before planting prune only dead or broken branches. At this stage, trees can use all the potential leaves they can grow. Do not allow the roots to dry out regardless of the form in which the tree is purchased. Keep the roots moist until you can get the tree into the ground.

Planting the tree correctly depends on the type of tree purchased and is a little more involved than just digging a hole and sticking the tree in it. Trees can be planted too deep which will cause them to struggle to grow and shorten their life. Following the appropriate instructions below will help your tree establish and grow up healthy.

After following the type-specific instructions below, backfill the hole with the existing soil. The tree's trunk flare (the point at which the roots begin to branch from the trunk) should be at the soil line. Water as you backfill the hole to remove air pockets and firmly set the tree. Gently tamp the soil.

Bare Root

Bare root trees should be planted within a few days of shipment to help ensure survival. Keep roots moist and cool until planting time - plants may be kept in a fridge if they fit. Remove all packing materials and soak the tree roots in water before planting. Dig a hole wider than the roots so they may spread without crowding.

See the Tree Planting and Maintenance Guide at the bottom of this page for more specific instructions on bare root plantings.

Container Grown

Before the tree is removed from the container, dig a hole and water it thoroughly. The roots of containerized trees may spiral within the pot. Help prevent root girdling by untangling or vertically cutting any roots that encircle the root ball. Loosen the soil and roots prior to planting, this will let the roots spread out more freely while allowing fresh soil to be applied directly to the root system.

Balled and Burlapped

Diagram of proper planting of a balled or burlapped tree
Diagram for proper planting of balled and burlapped trees

Dig the hole 2-3 times the width of the ball to allow the roots to grow, spread and establish more easily. Dig the hole only deep enough for the root ball because firm soil under the root ball will prevent settling. Once the tree is in the hole, be sure to remove twine, wrap, and wire baskets and avoid disturbing the roots as much as possible. Backfill the hole, firmly packing the soil around the tree and roots. Water deeply.

Taking Care of Your New Tree

Support and Protection

Staking for support is not usually necessary. Studies have shown that trees develop stronger trunk and root systems if they are not staked at the time of planting. However, protective staking may be required on sites where lawn mower damage, vandalism or very windy conditions are concerns.

Seedlings planted in rural or natural areas usually benefit from tree tubes or other sorts of protection that deter hungry wildlife. See our Tree Planting and Maintenance Guide under Additional Resources for details.

Mulch and Fertilizer

Apply 2-4" of organic mulch at least the width of the crown. Mulch should not touch the trunk or trunk flare. Do not mound the mulch up against the trunk as this will damage the tree - it can lead to mold, pest damage, decay, or even death.

Fertilizing during the first year is not necessary.

Water

Adequate water is essential for newly planted trees. Water your trees, soaking the root zone, at least once a week barring rain, and more frequently during hot weather. When the soil is dry below the surface of the mulch, it is time to water. But be aware that too much water can be just as harmful as not enough. The right amount of water depends on the site conditions and tree species.

Tree-gators can also be very useful. Gators are a portable drip-irrigation system that provides a slow release of water reducing the possibility of too little or too much water applied to newly planted trees.

Additional Resources

For Plantings in Natural Areas

Tree planting and maintenance:

Invasive species identification and removal:

General Planting Guidance

The following links leave DEC's website unless otherwise noted: