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Last Updated: February 04, 2011

Tree planting is more than just putting a tree into the ground. There are a number of options and items to consider prior to any tree planting. Before you have a shovel in your hands, you need to consider the purpose of this tree plant. Trees may be planted for:

  •  Aesthetics - for the shape of the tree, foliage colour in autumn, or showy blossoms and fruit.
  •  Shelterbelts or visual screens - along fields, on property lines
  •  Shade - to provide much need shade to yard sites
  • Energy Conservation - evergreen windbreaks to shield homes against wind and snow, deciduous trees to provide shade in the summer and allow sunshine in the winter months
  • Wildlife enhancement - to attract wildlife to your property by providing food source and shelter

Once you've determined what the purpose of the tree plant is, then you need to determine a suitable location for the tree(s). Things to keep in mind when selecting the location of the tree planting site(s):

  1.  How much room does the tree need to grow? Is it too close to other trees or a building that will cause damage to the siding or roof?
  2.  Is there anything that will limit the height the tree can grow, such as power lines?
  3.  Is the tree too close to an intersection where it may block visibility?
  4. What is the light levels at this location - full sunlight or shaded?

In the planning stages, call your local utilities. They can come out and mark any services lines or pipes present. To avoid any problems in the future, do not plant directly over these lines and pipes or directly under power lines. It is recommended not to plant trees within five meters of overhead power lines, however, if it is unavoidable, plant shrubs or low growing trees in this area.

Now that you've got an idea of where you want to plant the tree(s), you need to determine the soil type and drainage conditions of the planting site. This information will help you with tree selection.

Tree selection is very important. The best planting techniques will not ensure the tree health or survival if the tree is poorly suited for that site. Proper tree selection is probably the single most important factor influencing the success of the tree. When selecting trees from a nursery, inquire about the plant’s cold hardiness, as this will help determine whether the tree will withstand our cold winters. Please refer to the cold hardiness map for Manitoba , produced by National Land and Water Information Service, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada 2005.

Click here to see a list of Native Trees of Manitoba and a list of Non-Native trees which have a cold hardiness of 2.

Once you determined the type of tree and the location of planting and obtained your tree(s), you are ready for planting. The size of tree(s) and how the tree(s) are packaged will determine the method of planting.

It is best to plant or transplant trees in their dormant state, in the fall after leaf drop or in the spring prior to bud break.

Seedlings

There are generally 3 types of seedling types: bare root, container grown and cuttings.

Bare Root Seedlings

Bare rooted seedlings must be planted during the dormant season for the best survival. Weather and soil conditions conductive to planting occur in both late spring and early fall. The spring is generally the best time to plant bare-root seedlings, especially if planting in heavy loam or clay soils. Trees planted in heavy soils in the fall are more susceptible to frost heaving and winterkill from dry winter winds. Winter damage from rodents and other wildlife is also greater in fall planted seedlings. Keep the tree roots moist and protected from the sun and wind while handling. It is not recommended to soak the tree roots in water before planting because this will wash away protective soil particles from the roots, making the roots more susceptible to drying. Keep seedlings in containers with moss, wet shredded newspaper, wet burlap or similar material, as this prevents the tree roots from drying out while planting.

Container Grown Seedlings

Container grown seedlings experience less shock then bare-root stock at planting time because the seedling roots are not distributed when planted. Carefully separate the seedlings from their bundles, minimizing the number of stripped or broken roots. 

Planting Bare Root and Container Grown Seedlings

There are two methods for hand planting bare root or container grown seedlings: the hole method and the slit method.

  1.  The hole method consists of digging a small hole in the soil to hold the roots of the tree. The hole is made large enough for the planter to spread the roots out in a natural un-crowded or twisted position. Soil is then added around the roots and packed to remove any air pockets.
  2.  The slit method consists of placing the shovel in the ground and making a vertical slit in the soil. Insert the shovel at a 45 degree angle and push forward to the upright position. Remove the shovel and place the seedling at the correct depth. Remember you want the root flare to be at ground level. Hold the seedling at the correct depth and insert the shovel approximately 3 inches behind the seedling and pull the shovel towards yourself to close the hole at the bottom of the roots. With this method, bare rooted seedlings require some extra care to ensure the roots fall down the hole to avoid the deformity called J –rooting. Seedlings with J- roots are more susceptible to drought, disease, and insect attacks because the root system does not develop properly. Root systems with a characteristic J shape are typically caused by not making the planting hole deep enough or twisting the tree into the hole.

Cuttings

Cuttings are another alternative for regenerating certain tree species. Cuttings are usually 8 to 12 inch lengths of tree stems about ¼ to ¾ inch in diameter. They are cut during the dormant season from the previous year’s growth of vigorous seedlings or stump sprouts. Cuttings generally have no visible roots, but when buried vertically with only one inch of the stick above ground, they will form roots.

Cuttings produce exact genetic replica of the parent tree. Cuttings are generally used to regenerate poplars, but can also be used to regenerate willow and green ash.

Planting cuttings requires that the planting area is worked so the soil is loose, making it easier to push the cuttings vertically to their full depth. Cuttings seem to take root quicker if they are soaked in water for one day prior to planting in the soil. Do not leave cuttings in the water for more than one day or small roots will form but will be ripped off when the cutting is pushed into the soil.

When soaking the cuttings, be sure they are fully immersed in the water and not floating on the top. The best way to do this is wrap a bundle of cuttings with an elastic band and putting a weight on the top of the bundle.

When planting, be sure to push the cutting in straight down and not at an angle. Ensure that most of the cutting is below ground so that the top bud is flush with the soil level. Be sure to plant the cuttings with the buds facing upward. Once the cuttings have been pushed into the soil, pack the soil firmly around the cuttings and water them immediately. The cutting require watering whenever the soil gets dry, but do not over water them.

Larger trees

Trees are generally available from nurseries in one of three forms:  bare-root, balled and burlapped (B & B), or containerized. Each form has advantages and disadvantages

Bare Root Trees

Bare-root trees are usually small and easy to transplant. Because there is no soil on the root system, these trees are lightweight. This stock type is commonly sold with peat moss covering the roots.  It is vital that the roots be kept moist. For best results bare-root trees are typically planted during the dormant season before roots and buds begin to grow. If not planted immediately, bare-root trees should be stored cold, with moist packing around roots. Usually only deciduous trees and small conifer seedlings are sold as bare-root stock.

Dig a planting hole wider than the root width and slightly deeper then the length of the roots.
Build a small mound of soil in the center of the hole. Roots should be spread and distributed over the mound. Backfill about three-quarters of the hole and lightly pack the soil to remove any air pockets. Water the tree to promote good contact between roots and soil. Finish filling the hole and pack the soil slightly. Water thoroughly. Soil that is highly compacted decreases the roots ability to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Containerized or Potted Trees

Containerized or potted trees are sold in plastic or peat pots. This container-grown stock offers better protection against transplant shock and drying of roots during transport and storage. This stock type can be planted at any time during the growing season; however the spring and fall are best for the trees. Always handle the tree by the container or root ball, never by the stem.

All pots must be removed prior to planting. To aid in the removal tap the container on the sides and bottom. Never force the tree out of the container - it may be necessary to cut the sides of the pot to remove the tree. Sometimes roots will have grown in circles within the container. To ensure root growth, score the root ball by making several vertical cuts down the root ball with a knife. Another acceptable method is to use a shovel blade and make a cut through the soil ball at the bottom two-thirds, this is known as butterflying.

Dig a hole at least twice the width of the root ball and to the same depth as the root ball. Plant these trees so the root flare is just below the soil surface to allow the root flare to settle. Backfill approximately two-thirds of the planting hole with the same soil removed when the hole was dug. Lightly pack the soil and water. Finish filling the remainder of the hole, and with the soil create a saucer–shaped cup and embankment around the tree. Lightly pack and water.

The most important factor in successfully planting container grown trees is maintaining adequate soil moisture to encourage the roots to grow into the surrounding soil. 

Balled and Burlapped (B & B) Trees

Balled and burlapped  trees are sold with burlap surrounding the root ball. As much as 95% of the absorbing roots can be lost in digging, but some of these roots are preserved in the root ball. The burlap is used to wrap the root ball for support and helps keep roots from drying out from exposure to air. All burlap, twine, wire, tags and labels should be removed prior to planting to avoid girdling of the tree. Be sure to handle this stock by lifting the root ball carefully. Never move a B & B tree by lifting the stem.

Some larger balled and burlapped trees come in wire baskets to maintain the integrity of the ball during handling. Baskets can sometimes last decades in the soil, and they can partially girdle roots, restricting vascular transport. Although it may be impractical to remove the entire basket, it is preferable to cut away as much as possible once the tree is in the planting pit and the ball is stabilized. Basket removal eliminates interference with roots and allows them to grow and spread freely.

Once the tree has been selected, the planting hole can be dug. The planting hole for a tree should be two to three times the width of the of the root ball at the soil surface, sloping down about the width of the root ball at the base. The hole should never be deeper than the root ball. One of the most common planting problems is planting too deeply. Deep planting can even be a problem when professionals plant trees because containerized and balled and burlap trees often arrive with soil too high up the trunk due to production techniques.

It is imperative that the natural root flare be located before planting. The top of the root ball should be even with or slightly higher than soil grade at planting. Soft fill should not be added to the bottom of the hole because the root ball will settle and result in it being planted too deeply. Do not put gravel in the bottom of the planting hole; it does not aid drainage. Water will accumulate in the finer textured soil above the course gravel level until the soil is completely saturated.

Backfill the hole with the soil removed when the hole was dug. Work the soil around the root ball so that no air pockets remain. Firm the soil around the bottom of the root ball so that the tree is vertical and adequately supported. Water thoroughly and slowly. The remaining soil is sometimes mounded into a dike or berm beyond the outer edge of the root ball to collect water over the root zone, especially on sloped sites.

Mulch

Apply mulch around newly planted trees. Mulch is important for several reasons:

  •  keeps the soil moist by decreasing evaporation
  •  decreases competition from weeds
  •  creates a buffer between the tree and weed trimmers or mowers
  •  increases the effectiveness and longevity of fertilizer applications
  •  moderates soil temperature

Inorganic mulches include various types of stone, lava rock, pulverized rubber, geotextile fabrics, and other materials. While organic mulches include wood chips, pine needles, hardwood and softwood bark, cocoa hulls, leaves, compost mixes, and a variety of other products usually derived from plants. Because the decomposition of organic mulch improves soil quality and fertility, many consider these characteristic a positive one and the preferred choice, despite the added maintenance.

Do not cover the area immediately surrounding the stem, rather measure 5 cm out and begin there. Spread the mulch around the tree to a distance of approximately 50 cm from the stem. The mulch layer should be approximately 7 cm deep. Do not make mulch layer much deeper than the recommended 7 cm, otherwise small rodents may overwinter in the mulch.

Setting Down New Roots
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General Summary of Planting Rules.

  • Plant trees upright, not at an angle.
  • Plant trees in mineral soil, not loose debris.
  • Pack the soil around tree roots to reduce air pockets.
  • Keep tree roots cool and moist.
  • Do not plant in excessively wet or sticky soil.
  • Plant tree roots in natural uncurled position.
  • Make the planting hole deep enough to fit roots, but NOT TOO DEEP!
  • Remove or suppress competing vegetation on the planting site.
  • Remove trees one at a time from the planting container.
  • Never handle large trees by their stem, except for Bare Root Trees.
  • Do not remove trees from planting container until the hole is prepared.