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Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.
Robert A. Heinlein

How to plant a tree

It's not rocket science

My mother used to lament about people who put a five dollar plant in a two-bit hole. She was right. Taking the time to plant your trees right will cut the death rate in half. Maybe more.

Soak your tree.

That's right, soak it. Drop the whole thing, pot and all into a 5 gallon bucket of water. It can stay there for a half hour or so while you're getting everything else ready. If you have a larger tree, use a rubbermaid tote, or a child's wading pool. Ideally soak the tree the day before, so that the tree will be nicely hydrated. You can be casual about this on a cool day, but pay attention to this if you are planting during a heat wave.

Mix your fertilizer

There are 4 components or 'macro nutrients' that all plants need Three of them are commonly labeled (by law) on the fertilizer bags, those are nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. The fourth is sulfur, which is present in the soil in sufficient quantity for many plants, so it doesn't get a lot of press.

The next two, calcium and magnesium, are already present in our regions soils, and also in our water. (If you have hard water, you have calcium and/or magnesium.

Phosphorus is cheapest as rock phosphate. It's also extremely insoluble. Roots have to touch it to get anything out of it.

Sulphur is almost insoluble, but soil bacteria will gradually nibble on it releasing it in forms that the roots can pick up. In our area it's beneficial to help neutralize alkaline soil and water.

If you are planting conifers, planting with sulphur will help during their establishment. Eventually a conifer will make the soil acid on its own through its needles, but getting that first start can be tough.

I normally put in about a half cup of rock phosphate, and a quarter cup of course sulphur per 5 gallons of pot.

Dig a decent hole

Start by removing a circle or square of sod, leaving a hole 2-3 feet across and about 4 inches deep. This will be the water basin. Square ones are easier to mow next to.

Now dig the hole for the root ball

The hole should be a few inches deeper than the height of the pot, and between two and three times as wide as the width as the top of the pot.

So a #3 trade pot, about 10" x 12" should have a hole about 20" by 16" deep.

Now fill it up...

... But only part way. Put about 3-4 inches of loose soil back in the hole. sprinkle half of the super phosphate mix in the hole, and mix in.

Pull the tree from its pot and position in the hole. The top of the root ball should be even with the bottom of the water basin. This is important You do NOT want to bury the the trunk. It's a trunk, not a root, and being buried may cause it to rot off.

You may have to adjust the dirt under the root ball. Pack the soil at the bottom of the hole. Check again.

Check the root ball. If the roots spiral around the pot, untangle them or cut them with a box knife. This is really common at the bottom of the pot. Don't worry. the tree will grow new roots quickly.

Sometimes in untangling the roots you will change the shape of the root ball. You may need to build up a bit of a cone in the bottom of the hole.

Now sprinkle the other half of the phosphate mix on top of th remaining dirt to go into the hole.

Place the tree, and start filling in the hole. Pack it firmly enough that there are no air pockets. The fertilizer mix will get mixed enough just from you scooping it into the hole.

Once the hole is full, walk around it, using your weight to pack it down. Check that you can still see the top of root ball.

You will probably end up with some dirt left over. Plus you will have the sod. Use some of either to taper the sides of the watering basin.
This won't help the tree, but it will reduce the number of twisted ankles and it means that mowing by the tree isn't as risky, since your wheel won't go clunk! into the basin.

If the tree is on a slope, you can invert some of the sod to build up the low side of the basin.

Fill the basin with water, putting 1 tsp of 10-50-10 water soluble fertilizer per gallon. (I generally fill a 5 gallon bucket 2/3 full and put in 3 teaspoons (= 1 tablespoon) of fertilizer in it per 2 gallon tree. Adjust accordingly for larger pots.

An alternate way

This isn't as thorough, and sometimes it will lower the survival rate, but it's fast. If you are doing 100 trees this can be important. Dig a hole the depth of the pot. Slop about 1/4 of the volume of the pot (2 quarts for a 2 gallon pot) of water into the hole. Using a stick mix the water and the loose dirt until you get a thick paste -- just a bit thinner than peanut butter. Your hole should be about half full of mud.

Unpot the tree, and unbind the roots. Press the tree into the mud until the mud is even or slightly above the rootball. Make sure it's straight. If you can't press the tree into the mud, your mud is too thick. Add a small amount of water and mix. (A very small amount of water makes a big difference)

Next day come back and make sure it's straight. If your mud was too runny it make have settled. Add enough dirt to bring it up to the level of the root ball, and pack with your fists.


Got something to say? Email me: sfinfo@sherwoods-forests.com

Want to talk right now? Talk to me: (8 am to 9 pm only, please) 1-780-848-2548


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Copyright © 2008 - 2016 S. G. Botsford

Sherwood's Forests is located about 75 km southwest of Edmonton, Alberta. Please refer to the map on our Contact page for directions.