top of page






Tree Planting Mistakes


I thought that I would make you aware or perhaps remind you about the common mistakes in planting of trees. It does no good to plant a tree if it is not planted properly because it will not survive. I probably have submitted similar information previously so this is just a reminder. Unless the ground is frozen or the snow is falling, this time of year is great to plant a tree. The roots of the new tree will grow throughout the winter and be better established come spring. Spring is the worst time to plant a tree even though that is when it is promoted and of course that is when Arbor Day is observed. We learn by our mistakes, but it is still a good promotion of tree planting.

Information provided is a summary of an article written by Eric Berg, Nebraska Forest Service Leader for Community Forestry & Sustainable Landscapes, 2014. 

Common mistakes:

Poor selection – the tree must match the site you have to work with and soil quality is one of the biggest drivers. Quality of nursery stock is also a big factor, “once a poor quality tree – always a poor quality tree.”

Inadequate root systems – we tend to buy trees based on the stem and canopy and completely overlook the root system. A good rule of thumb to follow is that, for every inch of tree diameter, you should have 12 – 14 inches of root ball.

Poor planting site – high clay content or high sand content tend to limit species selection so you may need to do some key research on what trees in your area are suited to those types of soil.

Girdling roots – a majority of nursery stock is being grown and sold in round plastic pots or containers. While it is possible to find high-quality stock in containers, a high percentage of root systems from round pots have a container and stem girdling roots. Left as is, they may lead to the death or failure of the tree.

Planning hole – there is a tendency to dig a hole that is either too small or too deep or, even worse, both too small and too deep as in the case of soil augers. Take the time to dig and create a planting site which is a shallow hole no deeper than the root ball and much wider – two or three times wider than the root ball if possible. 

Planted too deep – the planting hole should be no deeper than the root ball itself. Find the primary lateral root level on the stem and plant no deeper than those roots.

Mulched volcanoes or no mulch – this is a tree killer either way – too much mulch or not enough. Too much mulch, the volcano effect, can trap moisture around the tree and greatly reduce oxygen levels in the soil, a leading cause for tree decline. Mulch should be shaped like a crater, with very little next to the stem and tapering outward to 4 inches deep at the edge.

Improper watering – more trees are killed annually from too much water than not enough. Too much water can lead to a slow decline or the eventual loss of the tree through suffocation. A good test is to use a long-handled screwdriver and if one can force it into the soil 10 – 12 inches, no water is needed.

Those are the most common guidelines to follow in tree planting. But I have one more which may seem rather odd and that is why not plant a seed? Most trees can be propagated through seeds. One can grow the seeds in containers and plant a really small tree or directly seed where one would like the tree. This method may sound rather ridiculous, but nature does it all the time. Birds, squirrels, floods, and wind all plant seeds and amazingly they grow. I realize seeds are limited especially if one is looking for a particular species of tree that is not common in your area, but at least think about it.

Also, try to find nurseries that grow trees without containers and also sell trees that have less than one-inch diameter stem, the smaller the tree – the greater the odds that the tree will survive. One can order bare root trees on-line and I have had success with those trees, but one must be prudent to get the tree planted quickly upon receiving it in the mail. Good Luck!!


Horticulture Chair – Del Hemsath

bottom of page