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If our education system was imposed by a foreign power, we would regard it as an act of war.

How to plant a tree

It's not rocket science

My mother used to lament about people who put a two buck r plant in a two-bit hole. She was right. Prices have inflated. Now I talk about ten buck trees in two buck holes. 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. If you have a lot of trees, have two in the soak while you’re planting one.

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. Pack the soil at the bottom of the hole. Really jump on it. It’s handy to have a high energy 12 year old for this. You may have to adjust the dirt under the root ball. Check again. An empty pot is a good depth gauge and is easier to move. Make allowance for the difference between the pot and the root ball.

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. If the top of the root ball ends up being a pitchers mound a bit above the bottom of the basin, that’s ok. (Some trees can benefit from being an inch too deep.)

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. If you are doing lots of trees, setting a box knife at about 1/2 to 3/4 inch deep and make 6 cuts around the pot, and 2 across the bottom.

Warning: If you are transplanting in hot weather, reducing the roots requires that you do the pre-soak the day before. It also means that you pay close attention to keeping the tree moist but not soggy for the next two weeks. Think about it. You’ve cut the water supply by 25%. But the leaves are pumping water out into the air. So make sure that the remaining roots don’t have to work too hard. Consistent moisture. But roots need air too. So, not soggy. Untangling is a better option in hot weather even if it takes longer.

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 teaspoon 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. A hoe works well for this.

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.

You aren’t done. You still need weed control. See the page on multching.



Start in the fall 20 months before you intend to plant.

Ideally two falls before you plant, plough the strip, and leave it fallow over the winter. This will kill a lot of the roots, and soften up the sod. Disk in spring when you can get out on the land. All that summer disk or harrow everytime there is a signicant flush of weeds. Proabably about every 10 days during the first half of the summer, tapering off.

If you don’t have a plough (or a tractor...) you can do this with a rototiller. But breaking sod with a tiller will rattle your back teeth loose.

In either case you need to do a strip twice the width of your widest implement plus 2 feet. So if you have a 4 foot plough, a 7 foot disk, and a 6 foot set of harrows, you want a strip that is 2 * 7 feet + 2 = 16 feet. This allows you to use the same implements for weed control on either side after you put the trees in.

Spring you intend to plant: Disk and harrow as soon as you can get on the land. Wait 2 weeks -- probably get one last flush of weeds. When the trees arrive, take a look and see if you need to harrow again.

When I did my shelterbelts, I had a chisel plough too. I took off all but the center 3, and made 4 passes on each row with the chisels sunk to the ground level. This broke up the hardpan layer, and made it easy for roots to go deep.


With the top 5-6 inches worked up, planting is fast. If you are hand planting, wear a winter mit on one hand, scoop, with one hand and place the tree with the other. The hole will half collapse with the roots at the bottom. Adjust the height of the tree and fill in the rest of the hole. Pack. You want a saucer shaped basin about a foot across to 2 feet across and 1 to 2 inches deep around the tree. This will speed up watering later.

The root collar -- the place where root and trunk meet -- should be about finger width under the surface. Poplar and willow don’t care if you plant too deep.

If you have dry conditions give each seedling a gallon of water as you plant. If you have good soil moisture, you can do all the watering at the end.

Followup watering.

Don’t water unless the top 2 inches of soil are dry. Then fill the basin-- about 2 gallons. You will need to do this between 3 adn 6 times over the course of the first year.

Weed control.

More important than watering is weed control. If you are good with a harrow, you can run the harrows 6 inches away from the line of trees. In row weeding has to be done by hand, or with one of those tiny tillers.

You can use roundup for weed control, but you need to be very careful not to spray your trees. Just a few drops on a tree will kill it. Make a shield with half a bucket and a bucket and a stick. There are pre-emergent herbicides that can be used, but read the back directions carefully. One, casaron, is lethal to spruce. The granular ones are the easiest to use.

A tractor mounted rototiller is good for doing the aisles. Let down the shoe on the tree side so that the tiller only takes a thin slice by the trees. The other side can go deeper. Many tillers don’t have big enough shoes to keep the tiller at the surface. You may need to add the equivalent of a ski. I’ve made a ski out of a 2x4, cut a slant end on it, and lashed it to the shoe with baling twine. The lashing gives it some bend. I can do a few rows before the lashing needs to be renewed.

If you can’t keep bare earth, the next best is to keep the weeds mowed short. This can be a good compromise -- mow the in row weeds as short as possible zig zagging through the row, till the aisles.

If you put down plastic mulch, you don’t have to water, and inrow weeding is no longer a problem. But now you have a strip of weeds on each edge of the mulch. Do not use a rototiller here. It’s amazing how much plastic you can wind up on a tiller while reaching to disengage the PTO.

More info on weed control


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