The Treehugger’s Care Guide: When to Water Trees and How to Look After Them

Alison Kasch
Written by Alison Kasch
Reviewed by Tara Dudley
Updated February 23, 2022
Father and son planting new trees at his backyard
Photo: ArtMarie / E+ / Getty Images


  • Plant in a clear, sunny location

  • Account for full canopy growth of saplings

  • Avoid planting trees below power lines and other obstructions

  • Water trees overnight for better water absorption

  • Don’t prune in the first three years unless there are dead sections

  • Never prune more than one-third of a tree’s branches at once

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Even if you’re a total sap for saplings, caring for trees can be a tall task. Still, it’s worth the time and effort, especially if you’re putting new ones in the ground. From watering to pruning and everything in between, here's how to care for the trees around your home.

Choosing the Right Tree

If you’re starting from a sapling, one of the most important elements of tree care is choosing the right type of tree. You should go with a variety that is well-adapted to your area’s climate, as well the light and soil conditions where you plant it. 

This will give your tree a solid foundation to flourish. If you’re not sure which variety to plant, consult your local plant nursery or Cooperative Extension System (CES) office.

Where to Plant Trees

Where you plant your tree is equally as crucial as the type of tree you plant. As the popular mantra for growing trees goes: right tree, right place. Look for a large, clear area where there is plenty of light and no power lines or other obstructions. Be sure to account for how wide the tree’s canopy will grow once it’s fully mature. 

Once you’ve picked out your planting spot, call the dig line to ensure you won’t disturb any underground utilities with your shovel. Also, be aware that a tree’s root system may eventually uproot your home’s foundation, so allow enough distance to prevent future issues.

When to Plant Most Young Trees

It seems like springtime would be ideal for baby trees to put down roots, but that’s not the case. The best time to plant is actually in late fall after the older trees have dropped their leaves (but before the ground freezes). That way, the tree can establish itself during the dormant season before the warmer weather and rain stimulate new growth.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t plant a new tree baby when you’ve got spring fever. After all, Arbor Day happens well after the vernal equinox. As long as you commit to proper care, your sapling should still thrive.

When to Water Young Trees

A man watering planted fruit tree at his backyard
Photo: Zbynek Pospisil / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Newly planted trees should get watered as soon as they’re in the ground. Build a low ridge of soil or mulch around the planting hole to help focus the water where the tree’s root ball is, making sure soil or mulch is not built up directly around the base of the tree. This will act as a dam to help hold the water while it soaks into the soil.

“For the first one or two weeks, water new trees every day with about 1 to 1.5 gallons of water per inch of diameter,” says Tara Dudley, owner of Plant Life Designs. “For example, a new tree with a trunk measuring 2 inches in diameter requires 2 to 3 gallons of water per day.” 

After the first two weeks, water the tree with the same amount of water every two to three days for the next three months.

When to Water Mature Trees

Trees planted within the last five years should get watered every week with about 5 to 10 gallons of water. Once your babies become established trees, water them once a month using the same tree-watering practices as you did for the younger trees—just not as often. 

As for your mature trees, these generally require little to no extra watering unless there’s a severe drought. However, if there is a limited volume of soil (such as an enclosed sidewalk tree pit), you’ll need to water if the soil gets dry.

Making Sure Your Trees Have Enough Water

Whenever there’s a drought, you’ll need to water your younger trees more often than normal (especially the saplings). Keep an eye on the tree leaves: If they begin to wilt, it's time to water. You can also check soil moisture at a depth of about 2 inches to ensure it’s not dry (but not soggy, either).

To get the most from your waterings, try to water your trees overnight, beginning around 10 p.m. and ending at 8 a.m. Overnight watering reduces water loss due to evaporation in the sun’s heat, ensuring that more water will soak into the soil and reach the roots. If watering overnight isn’t an option, consider watering in the late afternoon after the hottest part of the day is over. 

Best Tree-Watering Practices

Unfortunately, you can’t just hit your trees with the sprinklers while you water the lawn—this won’t allow the water to sink deep enough to the root ball. Using soaker hoses or drip irrigation is your best option, but a regular garden hose laid at the base of the tree will suffice. Be sure to move it often, as overwatering can suffocate the tree’s roots. 

In lieu of a hose, you can create a self-watering system by driving small nails to poke holes in the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket. Fill the bucket with water and place it near the tree. As the water drains through the holes, it will slowly and steadily water your tree.

Consider contacting a local tree care expert if you have multiple trees on your property that need watering, especially during a drought. They can design an irrigation system catered to the specific needs of your trees. 

Pruning and Removing Dead Sections

After you watch your young trees grow roots and flourish, you’ll need to trim and prune trees occasionally to promote new growth. During the first three years of your tree’s life, avoid pruning altogether unless it’s broken or dead branches.

For trees over three years old, prune them about once per year (or as needed to remove dead sections). Use clean, sanitized loppers or a handsaw and make your cuts right where the branch collar ends (aka the thick “shoulder” that attaches the branch to the trunk). 

Prune enough to achieve a nice, healthy shape to the tree. Never cut more than one-third of the total branches at once, as this can cause your tree to become misshapen. 

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