This article was updated on 01/10/20. Happy National Cut Your Energy Costs Day!
There are 2 methods of planting trees, the organic way and the synthetic chemical way. Landscaping contractors are much more likely to go the synthetic route that involves more soil amendments (some of which damage or kill earthworms and beneficial microbes), gravel for drainage, and staking. This may be faster and more economical but that does not mean it is recommended.
The organic method avoids this by building up healthy and balanced soil over a period of time. Certainly, this process takes longer, but the chemical way rarely gets it right; it just a crutch, and at times a toxic one.
This is not to say that one way is better than the other; its a personal decision. For example, Randy Lemmon who hosts the popular Garden Line radio show in Houston, Texas used to promote the synthetic method exclusively but in the past few years has begun to advocate both approaches. Randy is one of the best horticulturists and landscape engineers in south Texas.
On the other hand, Howard Garrett, known as the Dirt Doctor, is the top organic gardening and landscaping expert in Texas.
This article follows his suggestions for transplanting trees from the container to the yard.
Tree Planting Begins with Digging a Hole
As the Dirt Doctor says, dig an ugly hole. What he means here is the sides of the hole should not be slick and smooth like a spade or shovel might leave it.
Go ahead and chop into the sides if needed. The idea is that slick sides will inhibit root spread and you really want the root system to have plenty of room to breathe.
Its a good idea to either shovel the extracted soil in a wheelbarrow or on a tarp; this will make your life easier. How big should the hole be? At least as deep as the root ball is tall.
The sides should taper up at about a 45° angle and at the top it should be at least 3 times as wide as the root ball.
Almost all tree species like positive drainage. Howard recommends testing the hole by filling it with water and checking it the next day. If most of the water has not drained away, pick a higher location or consider installing a French drain.
Place the Tree and Backfill with Native Soil
This is where Lemmon and Garrett really differ. Lemmon advocates adding soil amendments such as Tru-Gro (kiln-fired rocks, a concrete byproduct), Schultz Soil Conditioner, and Fertilome Natural Guard (also known as Revive). Garrett says this is a waste of money and suggests only adding some compost to the soil you dug up.
If your root ball comes wrapped in burlap, you can leave it on, but cut it away at the top. Remove plastic ties etc. Plastic container plants are easiest removed by just cutting down both sides and pull the root ball out.
Any roots that girdle the ball in container trees should be cut or straightened out. Place the tree in the center of the hole and backfill the soil to the top of the root ball. Do not tamp the dirt down.
Add Compost and Mulch
I like to toss a handful or 2 of dried molasses on the dirt at this point. This encourages the growth of beneficial microbes and will not harm beneficial nematodes that you need for pest control. Next, spread and inch of organic compost over the filled hole.
On top of this add a shredded hardwood mulch ring. Dont use colored mulch. It should not touch the trunk, but slope up to the high point and then angle out to the outside of the filled hole. At its highest point the ring should be about 4 deep.
Finishing up the Planting Job
Dont stake the tree unless its unavoidable. Dont prune any leaves or branches at this point. The old concept that this must be done to compensate for cutting roots is just an urban myth. Do water it in thoroughly to remove all the air pockets.
Thats about all there is to it. Be sure to keep the soil moist until the transplant is established but dont overdo it. Everyone has their own preferences but in my experience the organic method of planting a tree has yielded the best results.
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Kelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelors Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.