Sometimes, a simple act of planting a tree and then walking away is not enough to help it survive. However, it is important to know how to plant a tree correctly in order for success. Here are 7 steps to tree planting success from the tree care experts at Brennans Tree Service.

Let me just say that I have learned the important steps of stepping through training, trial and error. When it comes to gardening, trial and error is always the best method to learn.

For good reasons, trees are called the lungs for the earth. Without them, there wouldn’t be any life on this planet. This is enough reason to plant more trees than we can. When you realize how important trees are for so many purposes, you will begin to understand why I love trees and why we need them more.

It has inspired a lifelong campaign to encourage people planting more trees. So I encourage everyone to #PlantATree.

No matter if this is the first time you plant a tree, or whether you’ve been planting trees for years, there’s always something to learn. It is important to know how to plant trees correctly in New Jersey’s climate and soil.

The Best Time to Plant A Tree

Trees and shrubs can be planted at any time of year, provided that you are able to dig the appropriate planting hole. For multiple reasons, however, there are times that are better than others.

Let’s just say that planting trees takes more time than waiting for summer to arrive. This makes fall the most convenient time to move trees and shrubs or plant new ones. The best time of year to plant trees is early spring.

Trees ready to be planted for a customer in Maplewood, New Jersey


1. The proper hole for planting. 

Preparing a hole for planting is as easy as it gets. Make sure the hole is three times larger than the current root mass, but not deeper than what the plant was growing in the previous environment.

For trees, a better guide is to look for the flare at the trunk’s soil level. You shouldn’t plant the tree so deeply that the flare is not covered by soil. Sometimes, even nurseries place plants too deep into containers. Sometimes I had to pull soil away to locate the root base and true surface roots. You should make it a habit to check this.

2. Plant high. 

I go one step further, placing trees and shrubs in new environments with at least 25% of their root balls higher than the surrounding soil. I then taper the soil to cover all roots and add a generous amount of mulch. The soil that has been disturbed tends to settle, and shrubs or trees planted below grade can settle below grade quickly and succumb to root rot.

3. If necessary, inspect the roots and remove them. 

Look at the roots once the plant is taken out of the container. If the roots appear to be in a circular or densely bound, or if they have begun growing in the container’s shape (even slightly), you should break them up.

It is vital to end this cycle immediately. You can’t just leave a rootbound plant in the ground. If you don’t break up the pattern, the plant will likely die slowly. It won’t likely ever establish or reach even a fraction of its potential.

Do not worry about damaging roots or losing soil. It’s better to give them a chance to grow than let the pattern get worse below ground. Although you don’t want the pattern to get worse, you should do everything you can to stop it.

Mild cases I’ll often rub my fingers along the sides and bottoms of the root mass. I will sometimes slice the roots vertically and remove the bottom inch. In severe cases, I may pull the root mass apart to create new opportunities for new, non-circular root development.

4. You shouldn’t amend your soil. 

Contrary to traditional landscaping methods, modern research suggests that you shouldn’t amend your soil with any organic material. This is unless you plan to amend the whole area where roots eventually grow. Roots that are planted in amended soil tend to stay away from native soil. This can lead to a decreased root system, lower growth, and less hardy plants over time.

Instead, you can simply remove any clumps from the soil and then backfill with the earth. Studies have shown that plant roots grown only in their native soil did a better task of expanding and establishing themselves beyond the original hole.

5. Remove air pockets. 

You can hand-pack or lightly tamp soil around plant roots to maintain soil-to root contact. But, I prefer to add a stiff water spray to the hole after you have backfilled half of the hole. The water provides the moisture you need and eliminates air pockets that can lead to dead roots. After all the soil has been placed, water it gently but thoroughly again.

6. Mulch. 

Start about two inches away from the trunk. Leave this area open. It is best to go further. Mulch retains moisture and keeps roots cooler at the surface, which is an essential requirement for newly planted trees.

7. Water Properly Until Established. 

You must ensure your trees and plants remain well-watered after they are planted. This could take weeks to months or even more depending on your situation. But don’t worry. You can set this part of your process to auto-pilot. (I’ll explain how I do this below.

Proper watering and establishment requires slow, deep irrigation. It’s impossible to do it by hand. You can only properly water trees using drip irrigation or soaker hoses.

Slow, deep irrigation allows soil around roots to saturate so that the roots can absorb moisture and avoid excess runoff. A sprinkler system or overhead hose can deliver water in a shorter, more efficient way than manual blasts.

For the first week, I water newly planted trees once a day. For the next two week, I will gradually decrease my watering frequency to approximately every other day. Gradually, you will return to normal.

It is important to keep your trees hydrated, especially when they arrive with burlap-wrapped root balls. These trees are now without their feeder roots, as they were dug from ground. They must be provided with adequate water for survival and establishment.

However, over-watering can cause more than one tree to be cut. Even if you have a large hole to plant, a poor drainage system can mean that the root ball could be sitting in water or even drowning. There is no way to tell how wet the soil is deep into the hole.

My best advice is to be attentive to how your tree responds to stress (and any other plants). Although it is common for them to lose half of their leaves to transplant stress, this is a normal part. More can indicate a problem.

If your tree isn’t responding to you and you continue to water it, you may be overwatering. You should water more if your leaves are becoming brown, dry and falling off and the soil is dry.

You may find soil that looks dry at the top is actually very moist a few feet below. It can also be the reverse. This is why it is so important to use your detective skills and observe what you’ve been watering.

For the first few days, you want soil that is not too wet. The amount of water you use to irrigate will also affect the time you need to do so. It’s not easy to answer.

Set Watering on Autopilot

To reduce time and automate your irrigation tasks, soaker hoses/drip irrigation are the best options. I can’t stress enough the importance of these time-savings!


I do not recommend fertilizing trees or shrubs before they are established in a new environment.

Concentrate all your energy on root development first. The walk-before you run approach is the best. However, even so, I prefer to keep it safe and use slow-release, nonburning organic fertilizer which won’t overtax the trees.

Although all the above steps are necessary, it is your active participation in monitoring new trees for signs or distress that will make or break your tree planting success. If you make the necessary adjustments quickly, you can reverse a downward spiral and create a tree with a long, happy life.