Fall is for Tree Planting!—How to Plant a Tree

three volunteers planting a tree in a park

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Autumn is the optimal time to plant trees. As mundane as it may seem compared to solar panels and electric cars, planting trees is one of THE most powerful and affordable ways to make a difference for the health of the environment and the beauty of your neighborhood. And planting trees is a fun and educational activity to do with kids and community, too. Here’s why…

Why We Should Plant Trees

As we learned in third grade biology, trees are essential to life. They create the very air we breathe and filter air pollution.

What you may not know is that trees also build soil and help soak up stormwater before it can create a flood, and they offer energy-saving shade that reduces global warming and creates habitat for thousands of different species. Trees also help to reduce ozone levels in urban areas.

Most importantly, trees sequester carbon, helping to remove carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the air, which cools the earth. In fact, a mature canopy tree absorbs enough carbon and releases enough oxygen to sustain two human beings!

We Cut Trees Faster Than We Can Regrow Them

Despite their importance to life as we know it, humans have cut down half of all the trees on the planet so far. Every year we cut down over 50,000 square miles of forest worldwide for paper, agriculture, building materials and fuel. That’s an area the size of the state of Alabama! Every year!

The carbon release from deforestation accounts for 25 to 30 percent of the four to five billion tons of carbon accumulating every year in the atmosphere from human activities.

Much of this wouldn’t be necessary if we reduced, reused and recycled more, cultivated hemp for fuel and fiber, and used sustainable and recycled materials in all our buildings.

But until this changes, we need to put the trees back any way we can, as fast as we can!

Related: 30 Ways to Use Less Paper

Have a Tree Planted for You

children planting trees

There are many local, national and international organizations that plant trees, and because planting trees costs relatively little, donating to these organizations can make a big difference.

You can also have trees planted specifically to offset your personal carbon emissions from airplane or car travel. These organizations can help you out:

Also check with your local environmental or parks department for tree planting organizations and events in your community.

Plant a Tree to Improve Your Property

While supporting tree planting organizations is a great way to be eco-friendly, you can also make a difference in your community by planting trees on your own property.

A properly-planted, mature shade tree on the south or west side of your house or business can save you up to 15% on your summer air conditioning bills. That same tree will also help soak up stormwater in the neighborhood, and contribute habitat for local wildlife. If you plant a fruit or nut tree, you get food as an added bonus!

Trees are not only good for the environment, but good tree cover can increase property values by 7–20 percent in residential areas and 18–25 percent for building lots. Quality landscapes with healthy trees can increase retail spending from 9–12 percent.

You really can’t go wrong by planting trees!

How to Plant a Tree

The Arbor Day Foundation has a great video series on how to properly plant a tree. Here are some important things to consider when planting trees.

When to Plant Trees

Autumn (or September through November in the Northern hemisphere) is the ideal time for planting trees, shrubs and perennials because it allows the roots to become established before the ground freezes and winter sets in. Trees and shrubs planted in the fall are also better equipped to deal with heat, pests and drought the following season.

Another great reason to plant your trees and shrubs in the fall is so you can select them by the fall colors they produce.

Avoid planting broad leaved evergreens like rhododendrons, azaleas, boxwoods and hollies in the fall, because they are not likely to survive winter cold and wind so soon after planting. However, virtually all other temperate shade trees, ornamental/fruit trees, and perennials are perfect for planting in the fall, before the soil gets too cold too dig.

Choose the Right Tree for the Location

Depending on your property’s conditions, one species of tree may be a better choice than another. You will need to consider your tree’s:

  • height and spread at maturity (20 years),
  • growth and rooting habits,
  • watering and maintenance needs,
  • susceptibility to disease (e.g. pine bark beetles, chestnut blight, etc.),
  • privacy and shade,
  • flowers and fruit/nuts/seeds,
  • and color (spring and fall).

Since your tree could theoretically live for many decades, consider how it’s mature size, water needs and growth habit will both impact and be affected by the area around it.

For example, oak trees like a certain degree of acidity in the soil, while willow trees love excessively moist soil. Some trees are fragile and easily drop branches, like Bradford pears or eucalyptus, or make a mess, like gingkos or mulberries. Others are invasive and shouldn’t be planted in certain countries, like Norway maple, Ailanthus (Chinese sumac), or Paulownia (Princess Tree).

Choose a Forever Location

A healthy tree’s root system is just as wide as its canopy, so be sure to plant your tree in a location far enough from your house to accommodate both the mature breadth of the tree branches and the mature spread of the tree roots.

Especially consider where your electrical, cable, water and sewer lines are in your yard in relation to your tree’s future root and canopy spread. It would be awfully expensive and tragic to have to cut down a beautiful 30-foot tall, mature shade tree because its roots were breaking up your plumbing.

Planting Depth Really Matters

Prepare a hole two- to three-times as wide as the root ball of your tree. The most common mistake you can make is digging a hole that is too deep and too narrow. If the hole is too deep, the roots will not have access to a sufficient amount of oxygen to ensure proper growth. If the hole is too narrow, the roots will not be able to expand enough to be able to nourish and structure the tree properly.

Before you start digging, spread a tarp on the ground to the side where you plan on depositing the dirt. This will make it easier when you have to refill the hole. After the right-sized hole is dug, you should then roughen the sides and bottom with a pick or shovel. This will help the roots grow strong into the soil.

Place the tree in the hole. Be firm yet careful when removing the tree from the container, so the root or root balls don’t dry out. This is best done by laying the tree on its side with the container near the hole you just dug. Once your tree is removed, loosen the roots from the sides and bottoms with your hands, then gently uncurl the roots so that they are facing away from the trunk. This ensures they won’t spiral or cut into the trunk as it expands.

Position the tree where you want it. Rotate the tree to move the branches so they are not in the way of anything. If you prefer to see a certain side, you can turn your tree to be in the viewpoint you want. If you turn the tree, make sure you are lifting it by the root ball and not by the tree trunk base itself.

Proper tree planting diagram
Click to enlarge.

Make sure your tree is planted at the exact same depth as it was planted in the pot or burlap sack it came in. Planting a tree too deep is a leading cause of tree death because it smothers the roots and introduces moisture and fungus to the trunk.

Planting a tree too shallow will expose too much of the top of the root system to the elements. If you have to move the tree to place more soil beneath it or take some away to get the tree to sit at the right depth during planting, it is worth the work. A tree can last for generations if you plant it right.

Fill around the root ball with the loose soil from your tarp. Use your heel or the handle of your shovel to press down on the dirt to collapse any large air pockets in the soil. This will help stabilize the tree in the hole.

While doing this, constantly check the trunk of the tree to ensure that it’s straight.

Water Trees Sufficiently

Cooler, wetter weather is the perfect time for tree planting, and seasonal rains can often provide all the water the tree needs to establish. However, if the weather is dry you should make sure your shade trees get about 15-20 gallons of water a week, until they go dormant for winter. Fruit trees and ornamental trees and shrubs can receive a little less.

It is very easy to make sure your tree gets the water it needs automatically using a TreeGator device. These weatherproof irrigation bags hold several gallons of water and release it slowly into the root zone of your newly planted trees.

No Mulch Volcanoes!

diagram of proper tree mulching technique
Image courtesy the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, Illinois

It’s important to mulch around your new tree to reduce weeds and help the soil conserve water. However, never pile mulch around the trunk of your tree! I know people do this all the time everywhere you go, but it is a very harmful practice for the tree and shortens its lifespan greatly.

While you should always mulch your trees, piling up the mulch around the trunk like a volcano introduces wood-rotting bacteria and fungus from the mulch directly to the living, growing bark of the tree. The moisture build-up and fungus will often girdle or kill the tree before it can reach maturity.

The proper way to place mulch around a tree is in a “doughnut” shape that doesn’t allow the rotting mulch to come into contact with the living bark. (See image above.)

Staking is Usually Unnecessary

Don’t use stakes unless absolutely necessary. If the tree is grown and dug properly at the nursery, it will establish more quickly and develop stronger trunk and root systems if they are not staked at the time of planting, but instead are allowed to adapt to local conditions. However, protective staking may be necessary where lawn mower damage, vandalism, or windy conditions are concerns.

Trees Benefit Us All

This fall, consider planting a tree or two on your property, or help with a tree planting in your community. And this holiday season, consider a generous donation to a non-profit that plants trees or does reforestation work.

We all benefit greatly from living among more trees. A future with fewer trees is a future that is less secure for all of us. Good thing we can easily do something about it.

Updated September 9, 2021

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