Planting Trees Correctly

November is the very best time to plant a tree in metro-Atlanta

By Geri Laufer

Who doesn’t love a tree? Trees are phenomenal creatures. Generations of people have sheltered under the spreading limbs of meeting trees (picture the Hometree in Avatar). The most important natural element in landscapes, trees produce habitats for a wide variety of insects, birds, and squirrels. Their magnificent size and longevity provide scale for the landscape and (when placed properly) valuable shade that helps with cooling your home. They also increase property value.

Trees generate essential environmental and social benefits for everyone. Studies have shown that hospital patients with a view of trees recover much faster and with fewer complications than similar patients without such views (Martin, 1998). Some trees even provide key medicinal ingredients. In fact, one out of every four pharmaceutical products used in North America comes from tropical forest plants (Plant-It, 2000).

They bring pleasure to the senses—the feel of the bark and leaves, the sight of a tree in bloom or changing colors in the fall, the sound of rustling leaves in the wind, the taste of the fruit and nuts produced by trees, and the smell of a pine tree or cherry tree in bloom. Did you know, one cherry tree can perfume the air with 200,000 flowers (Plant-It, 2000).

Don’t forget the memories—like the cherry tree you climbed up as a kid to read a good book or the tree you and your dad planted together when you were in kindergarten? (For me it was a prostrate spruce.) Everyone has memories linked to trees and nature sometime throughout their lifetime.

Why Plant Now?

In November and December, the soil is still warm from the summer, air temperatures have cooled, and deciduous trees have lost their leaves. All of these factors reduce the transpiration of water out of leaf surfaces, thereby reducing stress on the tree while it is rooting into the soil in its new location.

Before You Plant: The Right Tree in the Right Place

Consider the underground utilities—so that when digging your planting hole you don’t hit any power, water, or gas lines. Next, consider the overhead utilities. Trees can get BIG. This drawing from the International Society of Arboriculture shows how to choose your tree based on its maximum size in 20 or more years.

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Dumbbell vs. Pancake Shape of Tree Roots

Most people think trees have deep roots mirroring the shape of the crown (like a dumbbell or barbell held vertically). Actually, most tree roots form a pancake shape close to the soil surface with the feeder roots all in the top couple of feet of soil. Your planting hole should reflect this fact and be shallow and wide. Also, it’s important to rough up the walls of the planting hole so the roots have an easier time penetrating horizontally.

Planting Time 

  • Dig a large, shallow hole (the size of a hula hoop laid on the ground) the depth of the tree’s soil ball, but no deeper.
  • Unpot—cutting away and removing any pots, burlap, or wire baskets—without injuring the bark.
  • Spread out the root system to avoid circling roots and plant in the middle of the planting hole (at the same level it was growing in the container).
  • Straighten the tree in the hole—viewing from several directions.
  • Fill in the hole with the native soil you dug out—packing firmly to stabilize. The trunk flare should be visible and not buried.
  • Press or stamp lightly around your planting to settle the soil.
  • Water-in thoroughly with many gallons of water to further settle the soil.
  • Stake the tree if necessary.
  • Add a three-inch layer of organic mulch to hold moisture, moderate soil temperature extremes, and reduce grass and weed competition.
  • Thoroughly water each week (5–10 gallons or more) for the first couple of months after planting. Completely soak the soil, unless the rain does it for you. (This time of year the rain is apt to help out.)
  • After a year or two, when it has been growing and is completely rooted into the soil, the newly planted tree will survive periods of drought.  

What kind of tree are you considering for your property? Let me know on The Current Hub’s Facebook page.

Geri Laufer lives in Atlanta, where she, graphic designer husband David, and English Coonhound Lily are working on designing and installing a never-finished landscape. You can reach her at Geri Laufer