A Planting Guide for Pot-grown Deciduous Trees
The moment has arrived – your new trees has been delivered and you are about to plant them in your garden. These trees are going to be with you for many years to come, so it is worth taking a little time to give them the best start possible, so that they can give you their very best too. This guide is our general guide for all pot-grown trees that lose their leaves in winter, called deciduous trees. We have some more specialized guides for other kinds of trees, including some for special kinds of deciduous trees, so check there to see if your tree is on that list.
If your tree is not in a plastic pot, then you need to be using a different planting guide – see our list.
In a Nutshell
- Remove all packaging
- Water the tree in its pot
- Choose a suitable planting site for the needs of your tree
- Prepare the soil
- Dig a hole the depth of the pot
- Prepare the roots to prevent girdling
- Put the tree in its hole and replace most of the soil
- Water well, let the water drain and put back the rest of the soil
- Put a mulch around your tree and water once a week for the first season
Remove your trees from the box
The very first thing to do is un-wrap your trees. Remove all the wrapping materials, remove the trees from the box and remove any wrapping around the trees themselves. If you see that your tree is growing in a plastic pot, you are reading the correct guide.
If it is not in a pot, but for example wrapped in burlap or some other material, then check our list of guides to find the right one for your particular trees.
If you receive your trees in winter – which is a great planting season as long as the ground is not frozen – then of course they will have no leaves on them. That is normal – as soon as spring comes your tree will send out its fresh, new leaves and begin to grow.
Move your plant around by picking up the pot – do not lift it by the trunk or stem.
Care Before Planting Time
Your trees have been on a journey and they will be a little stressed, so place them in a shady part of your garden and give them a good watering. Do not put them in the garage, a shed or in the house, even if it is cold outside. Do not remove them from the pot. If you are not going to be doing the planting for a little while, that is fine, they will be happy in their pots, but if your tree is a sun-loving tree, after a day or two in the shade, move it to a sunny location. Remember to water every day or every second day, depending on how warm the weather is – do not let the pot become completely dry. If it does become very dry, place it in a bucket and half-fill the bucket with water so that the soil can soak completely.
Choosing a Planting Location
Once your tree has been planted it is best not to try and move it again, so spend some time deciding exactly where to plant it. Look at its needs for sun or shade and choose a suitable spot in your garden for it. Consider how wide it is going to grow and allow enough space from buildings in particular, but also from fences and walls.
If you plant right on your property line your neighbor has a legal right to cut back your tree to the property line, which may not look very nice, so plant well inside your property so that you have control over growth and pruning of your own trees. If you are planting a screen or hedge, we have special guides for planting hedges, windbreaks and privacy screens.
Preparing the Planting Site
Good soil preparation is the key to the success of your tree. Whatever your soil is like, use it. Do not try to dig a hole and fill it with soil you bought somewhere else. If your soil is poor, just use extra organic material.
You goal is to make a large area of looser soil that the young roots can penetrate easily, getting food as they go and establishing quickly. You need to have an area at least three times the diameter of the pot dug as deep as your spade will go. Add some organic material to the soil as you dig. Almost any kind of organic material is good, among the best are well-rotted cow, sheep, or horse manure (if you can obtain them); garden compost; any ‘top-soil’ from a garden centre; or if you have nothing else, peat-moss. A bucket per tree is about right, but any amount you have is worthwhile. In addition, trees need fertilizer to help develop their roots. This can be rock phosphate or bone-meal or any kind of superphosphate. There are many ‘tree planting’ fertilizers available too and they all work well, so whatever is available will be fine.
Remove roots of weeds from the area and any stones bigger than your fist. Smaller stones can be left and it is not a good idea to sieve the soil to remove smaller stones they are best left in and can help with drainage.
Turn over the soil, mixing the organic material and fertilizer into it and then level it off and get ready to plant. Save some of the organic material you used to mulch your tree after planting.
Preparing the Tree
The evening before you are going to plant, give the pots a good soaking with water. If the root ball is dry when you plant, it may stay that way and cause your tree to suffer from dryness even if the surrounding soil is damp.
Digging the Hole
Now dig a hole in the exact spot where you want your tree to be, making it two or three times the diameter of the pot, but only just as deep. If you have dug the soil deeper than that, use your foot to press down the soil in the bottom of the hole, to form a firm base beneath the tree. This is to prevent it from sinking deeper than you want in the hole after you have planted it.
Removing the Pot
Take your tree to the planting hole and slide the pot gently off. You may need to tap the edge a couple of times to release the roots, but it should slide out pretty easily. Usually there will be plenty of roots filling the pot and the root-ball will stay together and not fall apart at all.
If it looks like the soil is going to fall off the roots, don’t worry, that is easily dealt with. If you tree is dormant, with no leaves, then just let any extra soil fall into the planting hole. If your tree is growing, with green leaves, then leave it in the pot, take a sharp knife and cut around the bottom of the pot and remove the base. Then get someone to hold the pot together while you cut down the side of the pot. Tie a piece of string around it to hold together while you plant.
Preventing Root Girdling
A lot of problems can be caused later in your tree’s life if the roots grow around the developing trunk, a condition called girdling roots, so an important next step is to prevent that. There are two ways to do this:
- If your tree is dormant, has no leaves on it and no buds that are already looking fat and green, then you can gently pull apart the roots, so that they are spread-out, not circling around the root ball.
- If your tree has leaves, then take a sharp knife and make three or four long cuts about one inch deep down the sides of the root-ball, from top to bottom. Don’t be afraid, you will not hurt the tree.
The reason for doing these things is to encourage the roots to grow outwards from the tree, not to continue circling around, which in time, as the trunk and roots grow thicker, can literally strangle your tree and eventually kill it.
If you have looser soil with no roots circling around the root ball, then this step is not necessary.
Planting the Tree
Now place the tree in the centre of your hole, checking that the top of the root-ball is level with the soil around it. Replace about three-quarters of the soil in the hole, pressing it down around the roots of your tree. If you have left the pot on, do the same thing, but when you have finished, cut the string holding the pot together and gently work the cut pot out of the soil. Finish firming down the soil – a gentle foot pressure or firm hand pressure is about right.
Watering the Tree
Now fill the hole with lots of water, letting it soak down into the ground and into the root ball. Use plenty of water and then wait until it has all drained away. This will give plenty of water around the roots, where it is needed.
Finishing the Planting
Now put back the rest of the soil, firming it gently down. Make sure you have only covered the top of the root ball with a very little soil, no more than one inch. If you can still see the top of the root ball, that is fine. Make sure the soil is not sloping away from the tree, but flat, so that when you water it will stay around the tree, not run away. Some gardeners like to make a low wall of soil around the tree, at a spot about twice the diameter of the pot, to retain water. This is a fine thing to do, but not absolutely necessary. Put a layer of organic material over the root area, about two inches deep and then water the whole area thoroughly.
Planting in Clay and Wet Soils
If you have heavy, clay soil that stays wet for long periods, there is a special trick to planting which will help your tree establish itself better. Rake some of the soil from the edges of your planting area into the centre, to build a slightly-raised mound. Plant your tree on this mound and additionally, leave the top inch of the root-ball above the final surface of the soil after planting. This will help water to drain away around the roots until your tree adapts to the location. You should still use mulch over the roots.
Normally staking is not necessary. Modern arborists prefer to let the wind strengthen the tree, and stakes often cause breakage of the upper part of your tree.
In a very windy location two short stakes, well driven in but showing just a foot or so above the soil, can be used. Place these on opposite sides of the tree, outside the area where the roots are. If the prevailing wind is, for example, the north, then place one stake on the north side and one on the south side. Wrap some cloth around the trunk to protect it and tie a strong rope from each stake to the trunk. Some remaining movement is fine, the tree does not have to be held rigidly, and in fact that is not a good idea. Do not tie a stake high up into the tree.
If you have used a stake, remove it after one growing season, once the roots are well-established.
Follow-up Care of the Tree
Until your tree is established and has spread out its roots, it will need regular watering. How often depends on the weather, but a good, slow soaking once a week is usually best, or twice a week if the weather is hot. Soak the whole area around the tree, not just up against the trunk
So that is it. Your new tree is set for a great life and will reward you with vigorous growth, cooling shade or beautiful flowers. A little care really pays off.