Tips for Proper Planting of Containerized Trees

Image of tree with youtube logo and play button When you go to pick up your tree bring along:

  • One or two gallons of water to hydrate toots
  • A large old blanket or tarp to cover the breaches with to reduce the drying effects of wind and sun and keep the wind from tattering new leaves and breaking branches or buds.
  • Rope or twine to keep everything from blowing around or falling out the the vehicle
  • If possible, use an enclosed vehicle or trailer to transport trees so they aren't exposed to excessive wind that could damage the tree on the trip home.

After selecting a purchasing a containerized tree:

  • Always handle tree by the container to prevent damage to the root mass and base of the trunk attachment

When ready to plant:

  • Keep tree in shaded location and maintain a moist root mass until planted
  • Locate where the large supporting roots are found within the container. They may be visible on the surface or might be covered by a couple inches of soil
  • These large supporting roods will help you identify the correct depth at with to dig the hole. At the base of a typical non-transplanted tree these large roots will be found at the ground surface.
  • Serious root related problems can arise in the future when trees have been transplants too deep (girdling roots strangle the stem causing premature decline and increased change of wind-throw).

Size and Shape of the Hole:

  • Use the blanket or tarp from the trip home to put the soil on when you start to dig
  • The diameter of the hole should be three to four times the width of the container
  • The sides of the hole should be angled back at least 45 degrees and roughed up
  • Do not dig the hole any deeper than necessary, the large supporting roods should be even with the top of the hole

Inspect Root Mass for Circling and Girdling Roots:

  • Place Tree on its side and remove the entire container
  • Using a sharp utility knife or hand pruners make four for five lengthwise cuts into the sides of the root mass to sever any circling roots. Make four or five cuts across the bottom side of the root mass also
  • Loosen up surface roots with your fingers and straighten out any large roots
  • While holding onto root mass, center the tree in hole and make sure the top of the roots are at the surface of the ground
  • Adjust the vertical plump as needed

Back-filling a Hole and Mulching:

  • Do not amend back-fill soil with mulch or compost, but do break it up as much as possible
  • Fill in hole then place three or four inches of wood or bark chip mulch around tree, two or three feet wider than the diameter of the hole
  • Keep the mulch six inches away from the base of the tree to prevent moisture buildup on bark
  • Lightly step around hole to firm up soil underneath mulch

Initial Watering:

Additional Information

The Iowa Department of Natural resources has a pamphlet on Grass and Weed Control for Tree and Shrub Seedlings. Check out our tree planting article for information on planting tree seedlings. Iowa State University Horticulture has a page on care of newly planted trees. For techniques on protecting trees from deer check out our damage management article on this topic. 

This article is a web-based modification of the original publication "F-376 Tips for Proper Planting of Containerized Trees" prepared by John L. Smith.