a woman setting a new tree into the ground

Planting a tree. Photo: D. Clement, UME

Updated: August 12, 2022

About planting trees or shrubs in the home landscape

  • Check the soil pH and nutrient levels by testing the soil before planting.
  • Select the appropriate plant. This is essential for success. Refer to Tips for Choosing Trees and Shrubs.
  • If available, choose disease and pest-resistant cultivars of trees and shrubs.  
  • Resist the desire for an “instant landscape.” Smaller, younger plants become established and begin to grow faster than their larger counterparts.
  • Locate all underground utilities before digging. Contact Miss Utility (811) before planting or visit Miss Utility Maryland.

When to plant trees and shrubs

  • Fall, winter (soil should not be frozen), and early spring are the best times to plant trees and shrubs. Summer planting, when plants are in full leaf, can be stressful and should be avoided if possible.
  • Some trees have fleshy roots and should be planted or transplanted in spring: dogwoods, magnolias, willow oaks, tulip poplar, and yellowwood.
  • While broadleaf evergreens are best planted in the spring, some like mountain laurel, boxwood, and hollies can be transplanted in the early fall if they are watered deeply and regularly (if needed) and mulched.
  • Most balled-and-burlapped (B&B) and container-grown trees can be planted any time the soil isn’t frozen.

 Buying trees and shrubs

  • Begin by choosing the appropriate tree or shrub for the amount of sunlight the site will receive. Also, the site should be large enough to accommodate the plant when it’s full-grown. Do your research before going to the plant nursery. 
  • Most trees need well-drained soil and are susceptible to root rot on wet sites. There are exceptions, like river birch (Betula nigra), baldcypress (Taxodium distichum), sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), and many others. Learn more about how to test soil drainage before planting.
  • Support wildlife and your local ecosystem by planting a Maryland native tree. The state of Maryland and many government offices and non-profits such as Casey Trees of Washington DC  offer rebates to support native tree planting. 
  • Do not plant invasive species. Learn more about invasive plants in Maryland. Invasive Plants to Avoid Buying for your Yard and Garden in Maryland.

Types of rootballs 

Bare root

washing off soil to expose the roots of a young tree
Washing soil off of the root ball can reveal root problems before planting. Here several main roots are encircling one another rather than branching outward.
Photo:  Miri Talabac, HGIC
  • Bare-root plants are typically bought online, then shipped and planted while dormant. Roses, tree fruits, and tree seedlings are commonly sold this way. Soil removal lessens the weight and thus shipping costs.
  • The soil of bare-root plants is washed or shaken from their roots after digging.
  • Never let the roots dry out. They should be kept damp until you are ready to plant (e.g., wrap roots with shredded, mositened newsprint or moistened potting mix. Root desiccation is largely responsible for the failure of bare-root plants.
  • They should be planted as soon as possible after receiving them. If you are not ready or if the ground is frozen, temporarily pot them up in containers using a well-drained potting mixture. Keep them in a frost-free location. 

Balled and burlapped (B & B) or wire baskets

drawing of a balled and burlapped rootball
  • Plants are grown in nursery field rows and have been root-pruned to keep most of the roots close to the base of the plant.
  • The plants are dug and the root ball wrapped with either natural or synthetic burlap and secured with either rope or a wire basket.
  • B&B plants are available in a wide range of sizes, including very large plants. 
  • When selecting a B&B plant, make sure the ball is sound and hasn’t been broken.
  • Avoid plants that feel loose in the soil ball or have been lifted by the trunk or stems. Only lift B&B material by the root ball to avoid putting physical stress on the trunk.
  • Keep the soil ball watered, especially before planting, and make sure it does not dry out. Natural burlap can wick moisture out of the soil underneath, so plants may dry faster than those in containers.
  • B&B plants can be planted almost any time the ground can be worked.

Container-grown plants

drawing of a container grown tree
  • The vast majority of nursery-grown plants are grown in containers.
  • Before buying, ask nursery personnel to remove the container and inspect the roots. Roots should be firm, healthy, and visible around the complete circumference of the root ball.
  • Look for circling or girdling roots, which can become problematic if not corrected before planting.
  • Container-grown plants sometimes become root-bound with their roots tangled or matted around the container edges.
  • These plants need special treatment to loosen the roots when planted.
  • Container plants can be planted any time the soil is workable (breaks apart into small pieces when bounced up and down in your hand).
  • removing excess soil around the rootball

    Excess soil was removed from around the trunk, helping to expose the rootball and root flare.

    (A) The trunk is moist after the soil was removed. (B) Shows the faint outline of the exposed rootball.
    Photo: Robert Benjamin, Bugwood.org

  • exposed root flare of a mature beech tree

    Root flare of a mature beech tree.

    Photo: Miri Talabac

Get the plants home in good condition

Protect your plants from purchase to installation.

  •  Keep the roots moist.
  • Cover foliage with tarps or plastic to prevent drying or leaf tearing if plants are traveling in the windy back of a truck. Minimize the risk of branch breakage by laying down tall plants whenever possible, and put the root ball or container towards the front of the vehicle so sliding around is minimized.
  • Protect tree trunks from damage during loading and unloading.
  • Always lift plants by their container or rootball, not by their stems or trunk.
  • Plant trees and shrubs as soon as possible. If planting is delayed, water them regularly and protect roots from excessive exposure to sun and wind.

Steps for proper planting

Soil preparation

drawing of a tree and what its root system looks like underground
A typical tree root system in healthy, natural soil. The arrow on the left points to the feeder (anchor) roots and the arrow on the right points to the exposed root or trunk flare (root collar). The parallel dotted lines demonstrate the drip line. Contrary to popular belief, most trees do not have deep tap roots (especially as they mature, though there are exceptions). Feeder roots extend as far as 50% or more past the dripline. The majority of roots are in the top 12 to 18 inches of soil.

Trees and shrubs will more easily establish root systems in soils that are well-aerated and well-drained. Soil amendments are not necessary if soil conditions are suitable for plant growth (confirmed by a soil test and a drainage test).

  • Assess if amendments would be beneficial. Tree roots grow best in native soil. However, in the case of trees and shrubs being planted on a site where the topsoil has been removed and the subsoil heavily compacted (like new home sites), you should improve the soil before planting. Learn more about organic matter and soil amendments.
  • If needed, improve the soil over as much of the future root area as possible, rather than just in the initial planting hole. Mature trees and shrubs produce root systems that extend 50 percent of their height beyond their drip line.  
    • Incorporate amendments. If the soil is not compacted, 2-3 inches of compost can be spread and incorporated into the top 6 inches of soil over the area within the eventual drip line. Lime or sulfur, to raise or lower soil pH, should only be applied according to soil test recommendations; 
    • Topdress amendments. An alternative approach is to amend the soil gradually by using compost as an annual topdressing or mulch. Apply 1  inch over the soil surface and keep it at least 3 inches away from the trunk and root flare. Don’t dig it into the root area, it will filter down into deeper layers over time.
    • Alleviate compaction. Compacted soil can be loosened by driving a garden fork into the subsoil and rocking it back and forth. Lift the fork out of the soil, move 8 - 12 inches, and repeat. 

The planting hole

  • The planting hole for a tree or shrub should be no deeper than the depth of the rootball and at least twice as wide. Note that the rootball depth is only measured from the root flare to the rootball base, not the original soil depth if the flare was buried. The sides of the planting hole should slope outwards.
  • Do not loosen the soil underneath where the root ball will sit. Otherwise, when the soil compacts from the weight of the tree, it will sink deeper into the ground and the root flare will be too deep.
  • Adding organic matter to the planting hole will slow root establishment and sometimes kill young trees and shrubs. Roots often won’t grow beyond the well-aerated, enriched planting hole soil into the surrounding clayey soil. Organic matter holds water very well and excess water can get trapped in the hole if the surrounding soil drains slowly. The water displaces air depriving roots of oxygen causing the plant to drown. Conversely, the fine-textured surrounding soil can suck water out of the amended planting hole during hot, dry weather resulting in root death. 
  • Newly planted trees do not require fertilization for one to three years and possibly not at all if they are putting out sufficient new growth and the tree canopy is full. This is especially true for trees and shrubs that benefit from the fertilization of adjacent turfgrass.
  • Research studies show most of a plant’s energy is directed at root growth during the establishment period. The application of nitrogen at planting seems to suppress root growth rather than enhance it.

How to plant a:

Bare root plant

  • Inspect roots and remove any that are dead, diseased, broken,  twisted, or excessively long.
  • Dig the planting hole large enough to easily accommodate all of the healthy roots without bending or crowding them. The hole should be deep enough to allow three or four inches of mounded soil beneath the center of the root system. 
  • Then spread the roots out in the planting hole.
  • Fill in the soil around the roots and water to firm the soil, eliminating air pockets and voids. 
  • Don’t pack the soil too far up the trunk. The root flare may not be well-developed yet, so use the location of the uppermost root as your guide to planting depth.
  • Water thoroughly again and mulch.

 

Balled and burlapped (B & B) or wire basket tree

drawing of planted root system encased in a wire basket
Comparison of root system growth in a wirebasket
​The left side illustrates no root growth beyond the rootball. The right side illustrates the root growth that has occurred beyond the rootball because the top of the basket was removed by a wire cutter at planting.
Photo: International Society of Arboriculture, International Society of Arboriculture, Bugwood.org
  •  After locating and exposing the root flare, carefully lower the root ball into the planting hole. Situate the tree so that the root flare will be at soil level when filling the hole with backfill. You can lay a shovel handle or yardstick across the planting hole to help check where the soil will reach in relation to the flare. Check to see if the tree is straight. 
  • Avoid breaking or cracking the soil around the roots within the burlap.
  • Once the tree has been placed in the planting hole and set to the desired orientation, remove any cords around the trunk and root ball and cut the burlap loose. The burlap can be completely removed or cut away a minimum of 12 inches from the top of the rootball. Some burlap is treated to retard rotting, and some root ball wraps are a synthetic material. Remove as much as possible of these decay-resistant wrappings once the tree is settled in the hole.
    two people planting a tree
    Cutting the twine wrapped around the trunk before cutting away the burlap.
  • If the tree’s root ball was enclosed in a wire basket, cut it off and remove it. If this is not possible because of ball size or because the soil will fall from the roots, the basket will need to be partially removed. After placing the tree in the prepared hole but before backfilling with soil, remove at least the top 12 inches of the basket with wire cutters to allow for adequate and unhindered root growth.
  • No burlap or basket should be visible above the soil once the planting hole has been filled.
  • Backfill with soil, using water to settle the soil into any voids; avoid stepping on backfilled soil as the pressure compacts it too much. You can work it into place with your hands if needed. Finally, apply a mulch layer, leaving the bark exposed.

Container plants

  • Slide the plant out of the pot or cut the container down the sides to free the root system. Firm, healthy roots should be visible around the outside of the root ball.
  • If the roots are slightly pot-bound, tease apart and loosen as many of the roots as possible using your fingers or a hand cultivator. If the root system is tightly pot-bound, use a utility knife to make four, equally-spaced, one-inch-deep cuts down the length of the root ball from top to bottom. 
  • Use pruners to remove any circling (girdling) roots. 
  • New roots will rapidly grow from the cut ends of the roots.
  • Dig the planting hole deep enough for the top of the root ball to be level with the surrounding soil, keeping the root flare exposed.
  • Backfill with soil, using water to settle the soil into any voids. You can work it into place with your hands if needed. Finally, apply a mulch layer, leaving the bark exposed.

Staking and guying trees 

drawing of properly planted and staked tree
Properly planted, mulched, and staked tree.
Photo: International Society of Arboriculture, (ISA), Bugwood.org

The goal of staking is to prevent a tree from substantially leaning or falling, mainly due to wind, while it establishes. Stake ties should not be so rigid that they prevent all trunk movement. Research has shown that natural swaying stimulates faster development of anchoring roots and promotes a stabilizing taper to the trunk.

  • Assess when stakes will be beneficial. Trees that require a support system include: large bare-root trees or top-heavy specimens outgrowing their container, when a number of roots are lost due to corrective pruning before planting, or sites on steep slopes or exposed to strong winds. Fast-growing evergreens can be relatively top-heavy and vulnerable to wind and staking may be needed, especially if their root system was poor to begin with.
  • Orient stakes with prevailing winds in mind. Staking usually involves the use of two, 5- to 6-foot wooden stakes driven into the ground near the base of the tree but not into the root ball. The tree is secured to the stakes with padded wires or plastic tree ties. Adjust the slack on the ties so the tree can sway slightly in every direction. 
  • Protect the bark. Wires need to be covered with short lengths of hose or flexible tubing where they come in contact with the trunk to prevent bark injury. 
drawing of guying tree support system
Tree guying system
  • Guying uses three equally-spaced wires anchored to the ground. The wires are loosely looped around the tree trunk right above the lowest branches. Cover the wire with padding (such as short lengths of a garden hose) where they come in contact with the trunk. Allow enough slack in the wires for some trunk movement. 

Pruning

  • Pruning an ornamental tree before or immediately after planting is not necessary unless you are correcting branch structure or removing broken or damaged branches. 
  • Research shows that it is better not to prune top growth to compensate for the lack of roots. Leaves are needed for photosynthesis to produce energy for root growth and growth hormones to speed root establishment. 
  • Additional information: pruning young trees  

Transplanting a tree 

  • There may come a time when you decide a plant needs to be moved. Small trees or shrubs can be easily transplanted from one location to another provided it is done properly. 
  • Transplanting large trees or shrubs – those with a trunk diameter of two inches or more – is more difficult and may require a landscape professional. For those who want to do it themselves, prepare the plant by root pruning months in advance of the move. Be aware that the size and weight of the root ball will make the process cumbersome. 

When to transplant

  • Transplant trees and shrubs when they are dormant. In Maryland, there are two transplanting seasons: mid-to-late fall, and late winter to early spring, before new growth begins.
  • Always consider weather and soil conditions in determining when to transplant. Digging in soggy soil can damage soil structure. Postpone planting in late fall or late winter if weather conditions are unusually dry or cold, or the ground is frozen.

Root pruning

The goal of root pruning is to lessen transplant shock when moving plants with a larger volume of roots than would ordinarily be salvageable. Some root loss always occurs with transplanting, but this preparation method minimizes the resulting plant stress by stimulating extra root growth before the move.

  • Root pruning is the process of severing roots completely around the plant to encourage new root growth and make the plant easier to dig and move. As with branches, pruning cuts stimulate growth, resulting in a denser rootball after roots regrow. 
  • Start pruning roots in early fall at least six months to a year (but ideally two years) before transplanting a tree or shrub. 
  • Root pruning is done in stages in a circle around the plant.
    • For trees, determine the radius of the root pruning circle by measuring out from the trunk eight inches for each inch of trunk diameter (diameter as measured four feet off the ground). For example, a tree with a two-inch diameter trunk will need a root pruning circle with a radius of 16 inches.
    • For shrubs, the root pruning circle has a radius that equals one-third the distance from the center of the shrub to its outer branches. For example, for a shrub with branches that extend out from the center to a distance of 30 inches, the root pruning circle has a radius of ten inches.
  • Draw the root pruning circle around the plant using sand or field marking paint, or outline with a hose, string, or a rope.
  • Cut straight down eight to ten inches deep with a spade, around two-quarters of the pruning circle, on opposite sides of the plant. Do not remove soil or dig up any roots; you are simply using the spade to cut roots in place.
  • During the second year, cut around the remaining two-quarters of the perimeter of the root pruning circle. 
  • The plant will be dug and moved in the third year.
  • illustration showing radius at base of tree

    Solid line points to the radius

  • drawing showing a digging pattern for root pruning at base of tree

    Example of digging pattern for root pruning

Tree protection

trunk damage caused by deer
                       Deer damage to a young tree trunk 
  • All young tree trunks need to be protected from deer antler rubbing (also called “buck rub”) even if their foliage is deer-resistant. 
  • Due to severe deer pressure in Maryland plant nurseries, local hardware and garden supply stores, as well as numerous online sources, carry supplies to protect tree trunks. There are many different types to choose from. Make sure the material allows for expansion of the trunk as the tree grows and airflow allows the bark to dry after rain.
plastic mesh tree shelter protecting young tree trunk
   Mesh netting is used to protect the trunk of a young tree

Monitor and care of new plants

  • Make sure to keep all newly-planted trees and shrubs well-watered throughout the first two years, even in the winter, as needed, based on weather. Do not water when the ground is frozen. Low humidity, high heat or cold, and windy days cause soils to dry out quickly. Monitor the soil for adequate moisture to determine when watering is needed. Learn more about Watering Trees and Shrubs.
  • Periodically check the foliage and branches for issues. 
  • If you discover a problem, contact us through Ask Extension. Please submit digital photos with your question. 

Resource
Pirone’s Tree Maintenance, 7th edition. Authors, John R. Hartman, Thomas P. Pirone, and Mary Ann Sall.

Additional resources

UME Seagrant Maryland | (PDF) The Right Tree For Your Lawn

International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) | Planting a Tree

MD Department of Natural Resources | Marylanders Plant Trees

Maryland Native Plant Society | Buying Native Plants

Maryland Manual On-Line | Trees

Based on publication HG 24 Planting Tips for Trees, Author: Raymond Bosmans, University of Maryland Extension Specialist, Home and Garden Information Center (retired); Revised: Robert Stewart, University of Maryland Extension (retired)

Compiled Debra Ricigliano, Home and Garden Information Center. Reviewed by, Andrew Ristvey, UMD, Principal Agent & Extension Specialist for Commercial Horticulture
Rev. 2022

Still have a question? Contact us at Ask Extension.