Seven Secrets for Successful Tree Planting

Tools you’ll need for transplanting a tree include a garden shovel for digging, a spade (optional) for scooping soil, a hand cultivator for root fluffing, a saw for slicing into the root ball, and a tape measure for measuring the root ball and hole.

With nurseries discounting their plants by 30 to 50 percent, fall is a great time to buy and plant trees.

When planting a tree, it’s important to dig a hole 3 times the width of the root ball and no deeper than the root ball itself.  You’ll probably receive these directions when you buy the tree.  However, there are some fine points for planting container-grown trees that instructions frequently don’t mention.  So here they are:

  1. Look for the root flare at the bottom of the tree trunk.  The root flare is the area of the trunk that is slightly wider than the rest of the trunk.  Sometimes growers will cover up the root flare in the container so that the trunk looks like a telephone pole all the way to the soil.  If you don’t see a wider area at the bottom of the trunk, gently remove the soil in the container until you see the root flare.
  2. After removing the tree from its container, score the sides of the root ball after removing the pot.  This means making 3 to 5 vertical slices into the root ball about 1 inch deep all the way from the bottom edge of the root ball to about  half of the way up. Then run a hand cultivator along the root ball horizontally to pull the roots away from the root ball so they’ll grow out into the soil and gather nutrients instead of continuing to grow around the root ball.  This is called root fluffing.
  3. On the bottom of the root ball, make 1 to 2 slices 3 to 4 inches deep.  Check for girdling roots, that is, large roots growing in circles around the root ball.  Girdling roots can destabilize the tree and eventually kill it.  If you find a girdling root, cut it and see if you can pull the remainder of the root so it will grow away from the plant.  If you can’t, cut off the girdling root completely.  If it looks like all the large roots are girdling roots that can’t be straightened out, consider taking the tree back to the nursery.  If you bought it on sale, though, you may be stuck.
  4. Check the depth of the hole to make sure the root flare is even with the soil grade or up to one inch above the soil grade.  If you plant the tree too deeply, water will collect in the depression around the trunk, causing the roots to rot.
  5. Once you have placed the tree in the planting hole, turn it so the best side of the tree faces the direction from which it will be viewed most often.
  6. Remove any tags from the tree.  As the tree grows, tags can act as a tourniquet, digging into a branch.
  7. After filling in the planting hole, trim any suckers from the base of the tree before mulching and watering the tree.

One more thing. . .my cats, Toto and Steve, like to sharpen their claws on the soft bark of young trees.  If you face the same issue, install a cage made of plastic chicken wire around the trunk.

For additional details on planting trees, refer to this publication, The Science of Planting Trees, which is available on the Colorado State University Extension website at

Disclaimer: Blossoms & Blueprints and Deb Courtner assume no responsibility for injuries, damage, loss or inconvenience incurred as a result of using information from this blog.  (Sorry, folks, it’s the world we live in.)

Notice the root flare at the bottom of the trunk of this mature crabapple. When transplanting a young tree, make sure the root flare is at ground level or up to one inch above grade.

After you’ve fluffed the roots with a hand cultivator, they should look like this. Now the roots can start growing away from the root ball into the soil to obtain nutrients.


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