How to Plant a Tree You’ll Enjoy for Years to Come

Boost curb appeal (and make the Lorax proud) with a properly planted tree

Mariel Loveland
Written by Mariel Loveland
Updated June 22, 2022
Child plants tree with parent in green grass
Photo: maxbelchenko / Adobe Stock
Difficulty

Simple

Saturday skill builder.

Time to complete

1 hour

45–60 minutes per tree.

Cost

$100–$1,800

You’re mostly looking at the cost of a tree, which is usually a couple hundred for something under 30 feet. That cost can skyrocket if you want a taller tree (plus, you’ll probably need to hire a professional with a cherry picker).

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What you'll need:

TOOLS

  • Long handle garden spade
  • Long handle garden fork
  • Garden hose

SUPPLIES

  • Tree
  • Tree stake (1/3 the size of your tree’s trunk)
  • Tie
  • Tree guard
  • Mulch

Arbor Day isn’t the only day you can plant a tree. Planting trees is an excellent, simple landscaping idea for the shoulder seasons. It doesn’t just add a little green to your backyard and block out potentially nosy neighbors. According to the Arbor Day Foundation, one mature tree can absorb 48 pounds of carbon dioxide and up to 240 pounds of particulate pollution a year. In other words, it’s easy on the environment and your eyes—and you can do it on your own in an afternoon. Here’s how to plant a tree.

Prepping to Plant a Tree

Before planting a tree, consider the size, shape, and watering needs. It will grow, so make sure it’ll fit in your space (or get ready to prune it often). Since newly planted trees are fragile, don’t set yourself up for failure. Native trees (those that naturally appear in your specific climate) have the best chance of surviving without a ton of maintenance. Choose your tree based on your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone

If you’re in Zone 6 or 7 (which covers much of New England), you’ll need to choose a tree that can withstand frost. Deciduous trees like oaks and maple can provide fall color, but will shed their leaves in the winter. Evergreen trees will stay green year-round. 

If you’re in a warmer zone like Zone 9 (which covers the most southern parts of the United States), you’ll probably want to choose a drought-tolerant tree that can withstand high temperatures like sycamore, cypress, ginkgo.

New tree planting hole in yard with shovel
Photo: Ozgur Coskun / Adobe Stock
  1. Dig a Hole

    The first step to planting a tree is digging the hole. Use your garden spade to dig a hole that’s as deep—but about three times wider—than the tree’s nursery pot. Use your fork to lightly break up the soil around the edges of the hole. If the soil is compacted soil, your tree will struggle to grow. 

    The depth of your planting hole is very important. One of the most common tree planting mistakes is digging a hole that’s too deep. The top of the root ball should line up with the top of the soil.

  2. Unwrap the Tree

    Remove the tree from its nursery pot. Sometimes, a new tree will have a fabric wrapping. Depending on the nursery's instructions, you may or may not need to remove this.

  3. Dampen the Root Ball

    Use your garden hose or a bucket to saturate the root ball. Make sure it’s soaked thoroughly before planting.

  4. Spread Out the Roots

    Some tree species (like magnolia or eucalyptus) do not like root disturbances. Most of the time, though, you’ll need to unwind and spread out the root ball to encourage the roots to grow into the soil. If your tree is rootbound, you may need to trim the roots to loosen them. You can also cut off damaged roots.

  5. Plant Your Tree

    Tree planted in dirt hole rubber boots
    Photo: zoomingfoto1712 / Adobe Stock

    Pop your tree in the planting hole and make sure the top of the root ball is level with the soil surface (a piece of wood or your spade’s handle can help you measure).

  6. Fill the Planting Hole

    Use your spade to refill the hole with excavated soil. Make sure there aren’t any air pockets, since the roots will die if they’re not in contact with soil. You can pack it down gently with your heel (but don’t press too hard because you don’t want to compact the soil).

  7. Protect Your Tree

    Trees can be fragile before they root, so you may want to:

    • Stake your tree to protect it from windrock

    • Use a tree guard to protect your tree from wildlife

    Stakes are particularly helpful for large, heavy trees. Put your stake into soil at a 45-degree angle and attach your tree’s trunk using a tie.

  8. Water

    Woman watering potted tree
    Photo: AJ_Watt / Getty Images

    Once you’ve planted and staked your tree, water thoroughly.

  9. Add Mulch

    Mulching the area can help nourish your tree, insulate the roots, and prevent weed growth.

DIY Tree Planting vs. Hiring a Pro

If you know how to plant a tree, it’s not hard to do on your own—but it does get more difficult the bigger you go. Trees larger than 30 feet generally require specialized equipment like a cherry picker. In some areas, you need to apply for a permit. Even if you can manage the job alone, a local tree service can test your soil quality and make sure your trees have the best possible chance to grow. Since watering your tree is very important while it roots, you may want to consider hiring a local outdoor watering service, too.

Additional Questions

When is the best time of year for tree planting?

Depending on your local climate, it’s a good idea to stick to a shoulder season. Some tree experts believe that planting trees in the spring helps them root, since they have summer and autumn to acclimate before going dormant during winter. Other experts (especially those in temperate climates) believe planting trees in fall when they’re soon-to-be dormant will prevent damage and give them the best opportunity to flourish during the growing season.

How can I save money on a new tree?

Opt for a barefoot tree. Pros harvest barefoot trees when they’re dormant (i.e., leafless). They shake the dirt from the root ball and pack it in moist material. These trees can cost half as much as the trees at your local nursery, and you can buy them online—so there’s a much wider selection. Just make sure you keep your barefoot tree cool until you’re ready to plant it.

I want to plant trees in my community and beyond. Can anyone help?

If you want to take your tree-planting hobby from your garden to your local community, the Arbor Day Foundation created Tree City USA. This four-step framework helps communities grow and maintain their own tree cover. You can also donate to American Forests, a non-profit that plants trees in threatened ecosystems across the U.S.

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