A website from UGA Cooperative Extension

by Gabrielle LaTora, Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent

You’ve finally come to the big moment! You’ve selected your site after careful surveying, chosen the perfect tree, had your soil tested, and amended the soil with lime, fertilizer, or compost per your soil test results. It’s time to plant your tree!

Digging the Planting Hole

The first step is to figure out the dimensions of your planting hole. Your hole should be at least twice as wide as the root ball of your tree. Digging a wide hole loosens up the soil in the rooting zone, improves drainage, and allows new, growing roots to get enough oxygen. (Yes, roots need oxygen, just like us!)

Your hole should be the same depth as your root ball. When you put your new tree into the hole, you want the surface of the root ball to be flush with the ground. Avoid burying the root flare beneath the soil surface, as this can cause fungal disease, girdling roots, and make it more difficult for the tree to move sugars down the phloem to the roots. If you accidentally dig your hole too deep, backfill it with soil as necessary and tamp it down firmly.

Diagram of planting hole, courtesy of Utah State University Extension

You want your planting hole to be shaped like a saucer, with the sides gently sloping downwards to the center. Before you put your tree in, score or rough up the sides and bottom of the planting hole so that new roots can bore through that soil barrier more easily.

Planting Your Tree

Before you plop your tree in the ground, make sure the root ball is well-watered and moist. Take your tree out of its container (always lift your tree by the root ball, not by the trunk!) and check out the roots. Use your fingers to gently loosen up any bound-up roots. At the same time, unwind any circling roots and make sure they’re facing downward or outward. *Fun fact: Did you know that circling roots will continue to circle in the same direction underground, eventually girdling the tree?!* And remember to remove any burlap, tree wrap, or twine attached to the root ball before putting into the hole.

Burlap, tree wrap, or twine left on a tree at planting will eventually girdle the tree and could cause tree death; Image courtesy of Robert Pavlis, gardenmyths.com

Lifting your tree by the root ball (not the trunk!), place it in the hole, and make sure the top of the root ball is level with or slightly higher than the top of the planting hole. Look at your tree from several directions to make sure it’s standing straight and not leaning off to one side.

Fill in around your new tree with the soil you removed when digging the hole. Don’t add amendments to the soil, like compost or fertilizer, to the planting hole. Organic matter, like compost or peat moss, acts like a sponge and will hold too much water around the fragile roots of your new tree. Native soil is best. It’s a good practice to break up any clods and remove rocks or debris from the soil before backfilling it into your planting hole.

Once your hole is all filled in, use your hands to gently tamp down the soil around the roots and base of the tree.

Topping If Off

Staking your new tree is optional but reduces the risk it will topple over. You’ll want to stake your tree if:

  • The tree had a very small root system that won’t support the trunk and shoots on its own
  • The tree bends or leans without support
  • Your site is very windy

There are lots of ways to stake your new tree. Check out this publication on staking and guying trees from University of Minnesota Extension or contact your county Extension agent for recommendations.

Use extra soil to build a berm, 2-3 inches high, around the edge of the planting hole you originally excavated. This acts like a funnel to capture water and direct it toward the tree’s root system.

The last step is to lay down a solid 3 inches of mulch to the soil surface. This can be hardwood mulch, pine straw, or another organic material of your choosing. Avoid putting mulch right up against the base of the tree—this can trap moisture and lead to fungal diseases. Leave about 3 inches of bare soil between the base of the tree and the mulch layer so air can circulate.

Mulch helps prevent erosion, slows down the speed of water as it infiltrates into the soil, minimizes pathogens splashing from soil onto your tree, improves drainage over time, and—maybe most importantly—prevents you from getting too close with the lawn mower or weed whacker.


It’s absolutely crucial to water your new tree thoroughly. Water gently for a couple minutes so that soil is moist at least several inches down but not waterlogged. Come back an hour or two later after water has infiltrated and water again.

According to the Georgia Forestry Commission:

“It is important to remember to water newly planted trees throughout the growing season. During the establishment phase (2-3 years), young trees require more water and attention. It is best to water trees in the late afternoon or early morning when evaporation rates are at the lowest point. Newly planted trees require between 5 and 7.5 gallons of water per caliper inch (measure diameter on the trunk six inches above the soil line) each week throughout the entire length of the growing season. Too much water can be harmful for trees, so stay updated on levels of rainfall in your area. It is better to water deeply one time a week than to water a little bit each day. In summer during periods of drought and high temperatures, the tree may require watering the specified amount twice a week. When trees are transplanted, they can experience “transplant shock.” It is critical to water newly planted trees during the establishment phase to promote root growth, mitigate issues related to heat stress, and promote photosynthesis to maximize growth of foliage.”

Caring for your Trees: Proper Watering, Georgia Forestry Commission

It’s best to use soaker hoses or drip irrigation, if possible. These methods reduce evaporation and keep foliage dry, which can cut down on fungal disease issues. If watering with a sprayer, make sure to direct your spray to the root zone, avoiding getting the leaves and trunk wet. (Again, fungal diseases!)

Pruning and Fertilizing

Outside of any broken or dead limbs, there’s no need to prune your tree at planting. Begin your structural pruning and training 2-3 years after planting to give trees the time they need to recover and establish in their new permanent home.

Avoid fertilizing new trees at planting. Applying fertilizer to the planting hole or just after transplanting can cause damage to the tree’s young, tender roots. You should begin fertilizing per your soil test recommendations at the start of the next growing season.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our “Planning for Tree Planting Success” series: Tree Pruning 101!

Learn More

How to Plant Your Tree (Trees Atlanta)
Tree Planting Details (UGA Extension)
Planting a Tree or Shrub (University of Maryland Extension)
Hiring a Tree Care Service (UGA Extension)

Other Blogs in This Series

Plan for Tree Planting Success, Part 1: Site Selection
Planning for Tree Planting Success, Part 2: Prepping Your Soil