You finally bought a gorgeous, large tree to complete the landscape of your dreams.
The only problem? You have absolutely no idea how to plant it. And while planting big trees isn’t very complicated, it requires some preparation and know-how.
To help you avoid any of the classic gardening mistakes that go hand in hand with many landscaping projects, we spoke to the experts to find out exactly what you need to know.
Step 1: Pick the right spot
Assuming you’ve already picked out the kind of tree you want, there are still a few things you should do before it arrives. First, you want to ensure you’ve chosen the best spot to plant your specific tree.
“Select a location that provides sufficient space for the tree to grow to its mature size without interference from buildings, utility lines, or other trees,” says Zahid Adnan of The Plant Bible.
You’ll also want to consider the ultimate size of the tree’s canopy and the space it might need for the roots. Also, research weather conditions or other elements that might affect your tree—like planting it in an area with too little sun or too much wind.
Step 2: Dig the hole
Depending on the size of your tree and the quality of your soil, digging a big enough hole might take longer than you think.
This is why it’s often a good idea to start digging before your tree arrives.
According to Adnan, you want a hole wider and slightly shallower than the root ball.
“This will encourage the roots to spread and establish in the surrounding soil,” he said.
Step 3: Prepare the soil
Most of us haven’t been blessed with perfect soil and will need to spend some time amending it to achieve ideal growing conditions for a new tree.
“Well-draining soil is crucial for healthy tree growth,” says certified Master Gardener Jennifer Schutter, of Plantcarefully. “Amend compacted or clay-heavy soil with organic matter to improve drainage and aeration.”
You might also consider roughening up the sides of your hole to allow roots to penetrate the surrounding soil more deeply.
Step 4: Water the tree
That’s right—you’ll want to water your tree before putting it in the ground.
This will ensure the roots aren’t too dry and make it easier to unbox.
“If planting a bare-root tree, soak the roots in water for a few hours before planting,” says Schutter. “For container-grown trees, ensure the root ball is moist before planting.”
Step 5: Unbox carefully
Once you’re ready to get your tree in the ground, it’s time to start the unboxing process.
Rather than yanking the tree out of its container, gently remove it (or cut it out) while keeping the root ball intact and undamaged. Depending on your tree’s size and the container’s thickness, you might need a heavy-duty knife or gardening shears for the job.
This is also the best time to thoroughly inspect the tree to ensure it’s in good condition.
“Check for pests or diseases,” says Schutter. “If you find anything unusual, now is when you should contact the nursery or a local arborist.”
Step 6: Backfill the hole
Place your tree in the hole and then take a few steps back to ensure it’s level with the ground.
“Ensure the root flare (where the trunk widens at the base) is visible at the soil surface,” says Schutter. “Planting too deep can lead to root girdling and suffocation.”
Fill the hole half way, and water in the roots with your preferred root stimulator. Once the water is fully absorbed, continue filling the hole until the soil is level with the root flare.
Water deeply on a low flow for several minutes before covering the site with organic mulch. Be sure to leave a few inches of bare soil around the base of the trunk, as this will help prevent rot and pest damage.
Depending on the kind of tree you’re planting, you might also want to stake it for extra support.
“Secure stakes to the tree with flexible ties, allowing for movement and trunk growth,” says Schutter.
The biggest pitfalls that will kill your tree
One of the worst mistakes people make by planting big trees is forgetting to water them. New plants of any kind (especially bigger ones) will require lots of water in their first year.
“Water deeply but infrequently, allowing the soil to dry out slightly between waterings,” says Adnan. “Adjust the watering frequency based on weather conditions and the tree’s requirements.”
Another mistake to be aware of? Ordering a tree that won’t thrive in your garden. Check the grow zone of any plants you buy, and be sure you’re planting them in a spot with the proper light requirements. If you’re shopping at a reputable local nursery, it can help advise you on the kinds of trees that will work best in your landscape.
Last but not least, plant your tree before temperatures reach heat-wave levels. Newly planted trees won’t do well with scorching hot days, so if you have some of those in your forecast, it’s better to wait until the weather cools down again before planting.