Whether you’re looking for shade, a place to hang a tire swing or want to grow a miniature forest, proper planting techniques are key to your tree-planting goals. If you’re ready to try your hand on a new sapling, make sure you’re following these critical steps.

Give the roots a good hole

A good tree starts with a good hole – one that is the proper size for your tree.

“You want to give the roots the best start possible,” said Russ Bedner, owner of Bedner’s Farm and Greenhouse. “To do this, make sure you're digging the hole for the tree as deep as the root ball, and twice as wide.”

Bedner advised making sure the top of the tree’s root ball is level with the ground. Use a shovel or stake laid horizontally across the root ball to make sure the top of the root ball is level with the ground’s surface.

Prep the root ball

Often, container-grown plants naturally develop roots that grow in tight circles. When you remove your tree from the container, check the roots. If they’re densely wound, you’ll need to loosen and free the roots to promote lateral growth. You can loosen the roots by hand, or use your shovel to break the roots apart. This will help the tree’s roots grow into the surrounding soil.

“For balled and burlapped (B&B) plants, place the tree in the hole first, then fold down the burlap from the top of the root ball,” Bedner said. “Remove any excess soil away from the trunk of the tree. Be sure not to plant too deep, which can lead to stem-girdling roots.”

Backfill and fertilize

Once you’ve dug your hole, you’ll have a good amount of native, loose soil with which to backfill. Bedner recommends mixing the native soil with compost or fertilizer in about a ratio of about 50 percent.

“Use a good soil conditioner – we use Bumper Crop – to half of the existing soil," he said. "Also, add in some root stimulant. Our favorites are Mykes and Bio-Tone.”

Backfill the hole with the fertilized soil so that the ground is level.


“Improper watering is the biggest mistake we see people make with new plants,” Bedner warned. When you first plant the tree, you’ll need to water it heavily to ensure you’re ridding the soil of air bubbles. Turn the hose on and water all around the perimeter of the fresh soil. Plan on spending a good 10 minutes watering. If the water starts to float off, take a break and wait for the water to settle. Then start again.

Sometimes, watering can cause the backfilled soil to settle below the surface of the ground. If this happens, use more soil to backfill, then water again.

Use mulch

Your new tree requires moisture, and mulching is the key to retaining that moisture. Bedner recommends spreading mulch all around the perimeter of the tree trunk but keeping it from direct content with the trunk. Mulch can promote insect activity, which can, in turn, be detrimental to the tree. Keep the tree protected by leaving a good space between the trunk and your layer of mulch.

Stake it

Using stakes — two or three, according to Bedner — will help promote stability as your tree takes root and begins to grow. Sometimes, nonstaked trees grow faster than staked trees, however, the trunks of the nonstaked trees will be weaker. Stakes offer your tree valuable stability, allowing the tree to grow strong and steady.

“To become a good gardener, the best way to learn is by getting your hands dirty and trying it,” Bedner said. “Utilize the advice and recommendations from your local garden center staff and Penn State extension office. We are here to help and problem solve​ with you.”


This article is sponsored by Bedner’s Farm & Greenhouse.

A journalism graduate from Brigham Young University, Kristen Price has experience writing in a variety of fields, including art and culture, health and fitness and financial and real estate services. Kristen has written for USA Today, SFGate and the Knot.