Dig a Hole, Plant a Tree

Dig a hole, plant a tree. It’s that easy, right? Unfortunately, no. As a Certified Arborist, I get asked all the time about what trees I recommend, where to plant them, and how to care for them. There’s a lot to consider when planting a tree and it can be overwhelming to say the least.

My Tree and Me 

When deciding on a tree, it’s helpful to first think about the big picture. Sometimes I like to do a sketch or make a list of goals for the tree. Is it providing shade? Do I want it to produce flowers? Fruit? What’s my aesthetic? Do I want an evergreen or a deciduous tree? What about fall foliage? Once you have an idea of the tree’s purpose, you should start researching other parameters that might factor into your purchase. Find out your plant hardiness zone, the heat tolerance of your area, average rainfall, and soil type. Learning more about your yard’s specific environment should help you narrow down your choices before you go to the nursery.

Location, Location, Location

Consider the area in which the tree will be planted. How much space is available? Will the roots of your new tree interfere with underground pipes or septic systems? A river birch (Betula nigra), for example, can cause damage if planted in the wrong location. Because river birches normally grow near streams and wet areas, their roots spread far and wide in search of water. We had a client, once, who planted one too close to their home. The roots of the tree encroached on the home’s underground pipes and caused a burst.

Lesson: never plant a river birch near a home or sidewalk. They are best placed next to ponds or streams.

Another question you should ask yourself is about proximity to the street, other buildings, and neighbors. Consult your HOA if you have one. Would your tree be blocking anyone’s home or littering leaves, nuts, sap, pollen, or fruit in their yard? Would it be dropping anything heavy on your own parking area, patio, or deck? Are there any local ordinances indicating how close the tree can be to the road or power lines? One of my client’s family members has a fir tree that grows dangerously close to the power lines in her front yard. About once a year, the city comes by to shave off half the limbs so the tree doesn’t interfere with the lines. The outcome reminds me of a bad, asymmetrical haircut.

An image of caution for all who wish to plant something near the road!

Have you ever noticed that most parking lot trees appear in pretty rough shape? This is also an example of a bad location. A lot of parking lots use rocks as an aesthetic and to help suppress weeds (although weeds will grow on anything.) Unfortunately, the rocks, along with the asphalt of the parking lot, will reflect heat and dry out the tree. Unless it’s a desert type plant like a yucca or cactus, most trees will eventually decline in this spot.

Heat reflected from the rocks and asphalt make this location difficult for any tree to survive.
This type of landscape design also doesn’t give the tree any room for its roots to grow.

Size, Now and Later 

One very important factor to consider when selecting a tree is size. You want to find something that fits your space not only now, but later in life, when it has reached its full potential. Always be sure to research how tall a tree will get, how far their roots and branches may reach, and how fast they’ll get there. If you know you’ll be in a home a long time, it might be worth it to plant something tall and slow-growing so you can reap the benefits later. Small trees (10-30 feet tall) and dwarf trees (less than 10 feet) are a good fit for urban landscapes in need of an attractive visual or focal point. They won’t provide much shade but this means they also won’t obstruct any views or create any liabilities on the home. On the other hand, medium sized trees (30 to 60 feet tall) and large trees (over 60 feet) will provide plenty of shade and value to a home. They take a while to mature and might require professional care when pruning or managing pests, but these are priceless assets in a landscape.

White oaks (Quercus alba) are large trees that need lots of room because they can reach 50-80 feet high and wide. They are, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful native trees in North Georgia. They are great for birds and provide lots of shade and value to any landscape.

Selecting the Best

Once you know what tree you want, it’s time to head to your local tree nursery! Choosing the best tree is all about being able to determine what makes a healthy specimen. Select plants with clean leaves and smooth bark. Trees with insect holes, spots, or discoloration can be an invitation to disease. Other indications of poor health include dead, injured branches, dry root balls, and limbs that are crammed or competing against the trunk. Look for trees with lots of stems reaching in all directions. These trees should provide attractive, full foliage.

Never buy a plant with split bark or nicks in the bark. This can easily lead to disease.

Time to Plant!

You’ve made it! You’ve done all your research, you’ve selected your new tree baby, and now it’s finally time to dig a hole. But how exactly? And what comes after that? Don’t worry, I can help with that too. First, remove all materials like burlap or string and make sure the root ball is watered before placing it in the hole. Then, dig a hole that is twice or three times as wide as the root mass but only as deep as its lowest point. Set the root ball down on firm, undisturbed soil at the bottom of your ditch. You want the top of the root mass to be level or slightly higher than the existing grade of the ground around the tree. Finally, fill the hole. Use the same soil that you dug up and be sure to dissolve any clumps and remove any rocks or debris.

Here is a more in-depth publication on soil prep and planting procedures from a horticulturist at UGA that has helped me in the past: Soil Preparation and Planting Procedures for Ornamental Plants in the Landscape


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