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There’s more to planting a tree than you think

Farmstead Forest: Here are some tips and tricks for planting a tree, including digging the hole.

Curt Arens, Editor, Nebraska Farmer

May 10, 2024

3 Min Read
hole being dug
TRICK TO DIGGING A HOLE: The hole for a tree planting needs to be in the right location, so the tree has room to grow and mature. It needs to be deep enough and wide enough to accommodate the spreading roots of a young tree seedling. JohnAlexandr/Getty Images

The first step in planting a tree is digging a hole, right? Wrong.

There are more aspects to planting a tree seedling than just digging a hole. Where will the hole be located? How wide and how deep should it be dug? What are the soil conditions at the time of planting? Do we need mulch around the newly planted tree?

These are the types of questions tree planters should be asking before they sink their spade into the soil to plant a tree. Let’s look at the details:

Pick a location. Think about how tall and wide the tree will grow when it is mature. Planting a tiny, 3-inch Colorado blue spruce about 2 feet from the foundation of your house may seem like a good idea when the tree is just a seedling. However, this tree will, over the decades, grow to a mature height in excess of perhaps 70-80 feet, and it could grow out to a width of 25-30 feet at its base.

Are there power lines or other obstacles above the planting location? Are there sidewalks or concrete patio pads to consider? The rule of thumb is to look up, look down and look side to side before locating a spot to dig the hole. Don’t think about the tree as a seedling. Think about what it will look like when it is mature.

Dig the hole. Once an optimal location is set for the tree, then it is time to dig a hole. Small seedlings can often be dropped into a slit in the ground in a pasture or field setting, made by a planting or “Dibble” bar to speed up the process. However, most commercial grown nursery trees will come potted, or as larger bare-root trees. These need a little more attention when digging a hole. Potted trees can often be root-bound, so you may have to cut the pot off the tree and spread out the coiled root ball.

Related:5 prep tips for tree service trimming

When digging a hole, make sure it is deep enough so when the tree is planted, the soil level comes to the spot on the trunk where the roots begin. The hole should also be wide enough to accommodate the tree roots when they are spread out. Taking these things into consideration often means the hole will be deeper and wider than you think it should be by just looking at the seedling. A post hole digger will work, but these holes are often inadequate to promote the best chance at long-term survival of the tree.

Fill it in. Fill in the soil around the tree, pressing it down to prevent air pockets. Resist placing old sod over the hole and around the tree, as grass will rob the tree of needed moisture this summer. Do not plant the tree too deep, above the root collar, because planting too deep can eventually cause premature death as the tree grows.

Mulch. How many farm youth have “removed” newly planted trees with a lawn mower? It is best to flag small seedlings to make them more visible, and to mulch around the tree with wood chips — for instance — to hold moisture in place, prevent grass and weeds from growing near the young tree, and to slow soil temperature extremes, especially in the spring and fall. The mulch also keeps lawn mowers from getting too close. But, be sure to keep mulch layers away from the trunk of the tree.

Remembering these aspects of tree planting can help improve survivability of the tree as it matures. Yes, there is more to planting a tree than digging a hole, and there are even technical aspects to digging a hole that can also affect tree survival.

About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

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