D. Digging and Planting Trees

TIP: When digging trees and planting trees and shrubs, please try to eliminate moving or dragging around the stock as much as you can. This helps cut down on root damage.

For those of you about to transplant a tree, we have a small section on digging up your stock.

Digging up trees and shrubs to be transplanted

If you are transplanting any stock it is important to water it thoroughly a few days before you are going to transplant it. The root systems should always be kept moist before, during, and after the procedure. It will also make digging trees that much easier.

With planting trees, mark the direction to the sun so you can transplant it in the same orientation at its new home. (This can help prevent sunscald injury to the stem.) Also have a two-wheeled dolly or a large tarp to drag the stock to its new location. The dolly is better than dragging it on its root system.

Just before digging up the stock, tie up all the low branches so they are not injured during the digging, moving, or planting stages.

When digging trees or shrubs make sure that the shovel or spade (a transplanting spade is best), is sharp so the cuts through the roots are clean, and try to take as much of a rootball as you can handle. This will translate into less shock and less pruning of branches.

Don't try to lift or pull on it until you are pretty sure you have enough roots cut. For smaller trees and shrubs digging bare-root is ok, but should be done in the spring.

The root ball for most shrubs should be at least 2/3 the size of the branch spread, but the more the better. For trees, try to dig a root ball at least 12 inches for smaller trees (trunks one inch or less). Add 12 inches for each inch in thickness after this. (Two inch trunk = 24 inch root ball.)

For larger stock, you may have to dig a trench first, starting at the outside of the branches or drip line of the stock. Dig down one to two feet deep and at least six to eight inches wide. This will allow you to dig deeper under the stock so you can have more of the root system intact.

Pruning shrubs should be done carefully when transplanting. If you have a good rootball you may be able to skip pruning the upper branches. If however, you have removed a good portion of its root system, you should prune back the same percentage of the upper branches as you removed from the root ball. This will balance the amount of roots, to the amount of upper plant it will have to sustain.

One last note. Some people prefer to pre-dig the new hole. This will give you an idea of the soil you are dealing with in the trees new home, as well as lesson the time the stock spends out of the ground.

This is fine, but make sure you don't dig the hole too big or too deep. Just get it started, because you really don't know how big of a root ball you are going to have until you have the stock dug out of its previous hole. You can make quick final adjustments when the stock is sitting beside its new home.

Now that you have your plant in its new home you can follow the rest of the planting procedures below.

Digging the hole for new stock.

Before you begin digging, make sure that you have found the trunk/root flare first. This is the point just above where the tree and root system meet. (Also referred to as the crown.) This should be just partially visible after the tree has been planted.

Make sure you remove any soil or roots to expose the trunk/root flare so you plant at the correct height. Measure the height of the root ball now and dig the depth an inch or so less than the depth of the root ball to account for settling.

Place the soil on your tarp as you will be using it for backfill. Place a shovel across the hole touching the ground on either side to check the depth of excavation in accordance with the depth of the root ball. Try not to disturb the soil below this depth or dig too deep or you risk the stock settling, and being too low.

The width of the hole will vary depending on the soil conditions. The hole should be at least twice as wide as the root ball or a little more. Don't dig a huge hole if the soil is good and the shovel sinks in rather easily. The rule of thumb here is, if the shovel can easily penetrate into the soil then the roots should be able to as well.

If the surrounding soil is poor or clay packed the shovel can glaze the sides and make it difficult for the roots to penetrate. If this is the case take a pick-axe, shovel, mini-cultivator or 4-pronged fork and break it up a little bit. This will loosen it up, aerate it, and allow the root system to penetrate and develop further and faster into the surrounding soil.

If the soil is really dry you can pre-water the hole to saturate the surrounding soil. This will help keep your initial watering of the stock from migrating away faster into the surrounding soil.

Courtesy of www.treesaregood.org used with permission of the International Society of Arboriculture.

Planting Balled and Burlapped

I have decided to put this one down first, because most of what is covered here also covers most of the ways to plant other stock. There is more than one method of planting balled and burlapped stock. First, cut off all identification tags or ribbons before you plant, and attach identification tags to a stake if you still require them.

Some people prefer to remove all the wires, twine and wrapping before they place the stock in the hole. This is easier with smaller root balls.

This may not be convenient for larger stocks with heavy root balls. If this is the case you can remove as much of the wrappings as you can when it's in the hole. The burlap will usually break down over time so it's ok if some is left in the hole. Try to cut it or peel it down off the root ball if you can.

Make sure you remove anything from the base of the trunk and the uppermost portion of the root ball. Also try to cut and remove the wire if it was in a cage. This can impede roots and cause them to get tangled. It really is best to remove anything that can restrict root development right from the start.

NOTE: Always ask your nursery what planting methods they recommend because they are the ones that are going to warranty the stock.

Pruning trees root systems can be considered once you have removed the burlap. Look for any badly diseased, damaged or kinked roots. (Circling roots can also be removed to prevent girdling of the plant.) Take your pruning shears or a very sharp knife and cut them off now. You can also remove badly damaged or dead branches as well.

Do NOT do any other pruning other than this. Further pruning will come later after it is more established in a year or two.

Place the stock in the hole and double check the level of the root flare height by placing a shovel or board across the hole. Have another person with a good set of eyes to make sure the stock is straight from two directions 90 degrees to each other.

Please make sure your stock is straight before you start backfilling. It is good to have two people, one to make sure the tree is straight and one to backfill.

Once the tree is straight, start to fill in the hole with the soil from the tarp and any amendments to the soil if they are needed. Fill the hole around the root ball to half way. Some people will say 1/3, others may say 2/3, both methods are acceptable.

The advantage of filling 1/3 to half is that you can build the soil in layers adding water each time, and the soil will settle better.

Firmly press the soil down to stabilize the stock and remove air pockets. Don't stomp the heck out of the roots to pack in the soil. Water thoroughly again to further saturate the soil and remove any remaining air pockets. Finish filling the hole.

It is not recommended to add fertilizer to trees, but again, always check with your nursery as to how they want it done to ensure your warranty is not voided.

You should have soil left over close to the same amount of the root-ball. Take this soil and build a small berm around the perimeter of the branches (drip zone/line). This will help contain the water.

Now you can mulch around the base covering the berm to a depth of two to three inches and inside the berm as well being careful to leave a three or four inch space from the base of the stock. Thoroughly water inside the berm and the berm itself.

Planting Container Grown and Potted Stock

This is done almost the same way as balled and burlapped, except for a few small differences. Before you dig the hole make sure you have removed the stock from the container and found the trunk/root flare.

Sometimes the trunk/root flare is buried in the pot deeper than the top of the root ball and it must be exposed. If you just set the stock in the hole while it is still in the container, you risk planting it too low.

If the stock does not come out of the container easily, take a sharp knife and cut the container from top to bottom on two sides.

Now you are ready to dig your hole to the proper depth. Inspect the roots to make sure they are healthy and the stock has not become potbound. Use you hand and tease the roots away from the root ball. (Use a knife if you have to.) Place the stock in the hole and follow the same directions as above for balled and burlapped to complete the rest of the planting.

Planting Bare-root Stock

Bare-root stock must be stored in a cool place and wrapped in moist materials until planting, and planting season depends on your region and the stock itself. January or February is best if you can get a shovel in the ground. If your climate is really cold, as soon as you can get a shovel in the ground is acceptable.

Soak the roots for at least a few hours before planting or overnight if you can. (No longer than this.)

Make a tamped mound of soil in the hole, and drape the roots over it ensuring the trunk/root flare is set at the proper height. Follow the same directions as balled and burlapped. Try not to use too many amendments or too rich of a soil. This is easy to do with bare-root, but you should be using as much native soil as you can.

It's possible a tree can stress when the roots extend out of the amended soil into the surrounding soil.

So now that you have your stock in the ground, how much water will it need? When can you prune it? When can you fertilize it? Should you stake it? Let's move on to caring for newly planted trees.


Table of Contents: Transplanting Trees

Introduction: Transplanting Trees

A. Tree Planting

B. Planning Tree Planting

C. Tree Planting Tools

D. Digging and Planting Trees

E. Caring for Newly Planted Trees



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