How to grow trees

Learning how to grow trees provides us with oxygen, shade, and beauty, and also supports countless species of birds, insects, and other creatures. This step-by-step guide will provide you with all the knowledge you need to successfully plant and care for your trees, ensuring a lasting impact on your community.

How to grow trees

To grow a tree successfully, choose a species that is well-suited to your local climate and soil conditions. Plant in a location with adequate space for the tree’s mature size, both above and below ground. Provide consistent watering, especially during the tree’s early years, to establish a strong root system. Regularly prune and inspect for pests and diseases to maintain the tree’s health and structure.

Price tag on full height grown dogwood tree at ornamental nursery

Different methods of growing trees

There are many different methods of growing trees. Here’s a list of different ways to grow trees:

  • From seed: Start a tree by planting seeds, such as an oak tree from an acorn or an apple tree from its seeds.
  • Potted trees: Buy a tree that’s already started and growing in a pot from a garden center or nursery.
  • Ball and burlap: Purchase a tree that has been dug up with its roots and surrounding soil intact, then wrapped in burlap for transportation and transplanting.
  • Bare root trees: Purchase a tree in its dormant state, without soil around the roots, from a nursery and transplant it.
  • Grafted trees: Purchase a tree that has been grafted, where the tissues of one plant are joined to those of another, allowing for the benefits of both plants.
  • Transplanted trees: Using specialized equipment, some larger trees can be transplanted from one location to another.
  • Cuttings: Some trees can be grown from a cutting of another tree. This involves cutting off a branch and rooting it, either in soil or water.
  • Layering: This method involves bending a low branch to the ground and covering a section with soil. Roots will eventually develop at the covered part, and once established, it can be cut off and planted as a new tree.
  • Air layering: Similar to layering but instead of burying part of the branch in soil, a section of the branch is stripped of its bark, wrapped in damp moss, and then covered with plastic. Once roots develop inside the moss, the branch can be cut off and planted.
  • Stump sprouts: Some trees, when cut down, will naturally produce shoots from the stump. These can be allowed to grow into new trees.
  • Tissue culture: A modern method where tiny pieces of the tree (like cells or tissue samples) are grown in a nutrient medium under sterile conditions. Once the tissues develop into small plants, they can be transplanted.
  • Moving into a pre-planted property: As mentioned, one can simply move into a property where trees have already been planted and care for the existing trees.

The method you choose may depend on the type of tree you want to grow, the resources you have available, and the time you want to invest. Each method has its own set of requirements and considerations, so it’s a good idea to research each one thoroughly before deciding which is best for your situation.

Choosing the right time to plant trees

The timing of planting trees can make a significant difference. While healthy trees can be planted anytime in tropical climates, the optimal time to plant trees in most regions is during the dormant seasons, such as fall or early spring. Planting during these periods allows carbohydrates generated during the preceding growing season to be channeled toward root growth, reducing the reliance on extra irrigation in the following summers.

If you’re planting balled and burlapped or container trees, you’ll be happy to know that healthy trees can be planted throughout the entire growing season. When transferring a tree or shrub to the planting hole, make sure to lift it by the rope, burlap, or wire cage on the root ball to prevent damage.

Grasping when to plant is vital in paving the way for your trees to flourish. By planting during dormant seasons or following specific guidelines for container trees, you’re setting the stage for thriving trees and shrubs in your landscape.

Preparing the planting site

Proper site preparation is pivotal for the healthy growth of your tree before planting. Most ornamental plants require good drainage to remove excess soil moisture and prevent root rot. It’s important to clear away any debris, such as chunks of concrete, roofing shingles, or oil spills, that may impede plant growth in newly disturbed soil.

The planting hole should be two to three times wider than the current root mass but only as deep as the root ball to create a proper planting hole. If you have soil compaction near new construction, tilling deeply and incorporating organic matter can help improve all the soil layers. For sites known to be poorly drained, creating raised beds or installing a drain tile may be necessary to ensure proper drainage.

When forming the final grade, avoid creating dips or pockets where water may collect. Shape the beds so that excess water is directed away from buildings and towards unplanted areas, eliminating air pockets and ensuring proper drainage.

Enhancing soil with organic amendments

To promote healthy root growth, it’s beneficial to enhance the native soil with organic amendments. Roots have a tendency to remain in amended soil due to the favorable conditions it provides rather than spreading out beyond the narrow planting hole, which can result in inadequate root development and a lack of acclimatization to the surrounding soil. Organic amendments, such as peat moss, can be used to improve soil structure.

Organic amendments provide essential minerals that support robust root systems and stimulate plant growth. They also help plant roots extract and assimilate minerals and water from the soil, enhancing adaptation and tolerance to stressful environments. To achieve these benefits, organic amendments should be incorporated uniformly throughout the rooting zone rather than just in the planting hole.

In some cases, it may be necessary to adjust the soil’s pH level to prevent root rot and other soil-borne diseases. Dolomitic lime is typically used to raise the pH level of acidic soils.

Planting depth and root ball care

Correct tree planting depth is critical because planting too deeply often leads to the death of trees and shrubs. To ensure that the tree is not planted too deeply, it’s important to cut circling roots and spread bare-root tree roots when tending to the root ball. Before planting, inspect tree roots for densely bound roots in a circular pattern or roots that have begun taking the form of the container, ensuring all their feeder roots are healthy and ready for planting.

For planting bare-root trees, dig a hole wide enough to allow the roots to spread out without cutting, breaking, or bending them to fit the hole. Root balls of trees in pots are sometimes “root bound” and have roots circling the soil in the pot. This is less common when root balls are wrapped in burlap, and more common for potted trees from the garden center.

For root bound trees, take the time to gently loosen and unwind the roots so they point outwards instead of circling. If the roots are truly knotted together, use pruning shears or a serrated knife to make slices with the depth of 1 to 2 inches. Start from the top of the root ball and go all the way to the bottom. Make 3 or 4 cuts around the root ball. Additionally, pull roots growing along the outside of the root ball away from it.

Filling the planting hole

Proper filling of the planting hole plays a significant role in tree growth. Slowly fill the planting hole with the amended soil. Tamp down to eliminate air pockets. Water the tree deeply.

Once the hole is filled with loose, unamended soil, gently tamp again to ensure proper soil moisture retention and root contact. After backfilling the bottom half of the space around the root ball, lightly tamp the soil with your foot to eliminate air pockets and ensure proper root contact.

As you backfill the soil, make sure the surrounding soil level is slightly lower than the base of the tree. The flare at the bottom of the main trunk should be above the soil so that true surface roots can establish themselves naturally in the existing soil over time.

Pruning trees

Pruning trees is essential for their health and appearance. It involves removing dead, diseased, or overgrown branches to promote growth and prevent the spread of disease. The best time to prune is typically in late winter or early spring, when trees are dormant. Proper technique is crucial; cuts should be made at the branch collar to encourage healing. Regular pruning can also shape a tree’s structure, enhancing its aesthetic appeal and reducing the risk of damage during storms.

Tree care is incomplete without pruning. Prune trees with poor structure at planting, particularly if no additional pruning is intended for the ensuing year or two. It is much easier to prune a young tree than an older tree.

Mulching techniques

Mulching helps preserve moisture and maintain roots cooler near the surface. Mulching also aids in water conservation and weed prevention for a newly planted tree.

Apply a 2-3 inch layer of mulch around the base of the tree, taking care not to heap it right against the trunk to maintain consistent soil moisture and promote healthy root growth. Avoid allowing mulch to come into contact with the stem or trunk, as this can increase the likelihood of stem rot and root rot.

Watering and fertilizing strategies

A regular watering schedule is key to maintaining your tree’s health and resilience against drought, pests, and disease. However, providing insufficient or excessive water to recently planted trees can lead to plants dying due to inadequate or excessive hydration during the initial stages of planting. It’s important to thoroughly soak the soil to the entire depth of the root mass, as opposed to frequent light waterings, and investing in soaker hoses and timers is suggested.

Watering and fertilizing tips for newly planted trees:

  • Water every other day for the first two weeks.
  • If less than 1” of rain falls during the week, watering once a week should suffice to maintain proper soil moisture.
  • Wait until the tree is well-established before applying any fertilizer.

Tree placement considerations

The right tree location can save you from costly maintenance and conflicts with utility lines, sidewalks, and driveways. Planting tall-growing trees near overhead utility lines can cause the tree to have an unnatural appearance, reduce its lifespan, and present safety hazards.

Always contact your utility company or locator service to ensure that all underground utilities have been identified before planting a tree. By considering utility lines, sidewalks, and driveways when choosing a tree trees location, you can avoid these issues and ensure a successful tree planting.

Staking and supporting your tree

Depending on factors like root ball stability, trunk strength, wind direction, and canopy density, your tree might need staking initially. Staking can help eliminate air pockets and ensure proper root contact. Remove the stakes after the first year of growth (unless the tree is grafted onto a non supportive rootstock).

Staking at planting time is not always necessary and should be determined by factors such as root ball stability, trunk size and strength, direction of prevailing winds, canopy size and density, and soil moisture levels. By carefully considering these factors, you can decide whether or not your tree requires staking and support.

Freeman maple in fall

Ongoing maintenance and care

Post-planting care, especially during the initial years, is crucial for the successful growth of your tree. The key to tree planting success lies in continually observing newly planted trees for signs of difficulty over time. Here are some steps to follow for post-planting care:

  • Monitor the health and growth of the tree.
  • Adjust watering and fertilizing practices as necessary.
  • Carry out regular maintenance to ensure its longevity.

Getting a new tree started off in a healthy manner will facilitate its growth to its full size and guarantee that it will offer environmental, economic, and social benefits throughout its lifespan. With proper care and maintenance, your tree will thrive, providing countless benefits to you and your community.

Troubleshooting tree issues

Residential landscapes often face several common issues with trees, ranging from improper planting to diseases and pests.

Improper planting and site selection

One of the most frequent problems is improper planting or site selection. Trees planted in unsuitable locations can suffer from restricted root growth, lack of sunlight, or waterlogging. The solution lies in thorough research before planting. Ensure the selected tree species is suitable for the local climate, soil type, and available space. For existing trees in poor locations, consider professional advice on whether to relocate the tree or modify the surrounding area to better accommodate it.

Tree pests and diseases

Trees in residential areas are often prone to pest infestations and diseases. Common pests include aphids, borers, and spider mites, while diseases might range from fungal infections to root rot. Regular inspections are key to early detection and treatment. Use appropriate pesticides or fungicides as needed, and consider integrated pest management strategies that include promoting beneficial insects. Pruning infected branches can also help control the spread of diseases.

Improper pruning

Improper pruning can lead to weakened structure, poor growth, and increased susceptibility to pests and diseases. Avoid over-pruning or cutting in the wrong places. Prune during the tree’s dormant season and make cuts at the branch collar for proper healing. Consulting with a professional arborist can ensure that pruning is done correctly and safely.

Watering issues

Both overwatering and underwatering can cause significant stress to trees. Signs of overwatering include yellowing leaves and soft, spongy wood, while underwatering is often indicated by wilting and dry, brittle leaves. Establish a consistent watering schedule based on the needs of the specific tree species, and adjust according to weather conditions. Mulching around the base can help retain soil moisture and regulate temperature.

Taking soil samples for a soil test

Soil problems

Soil quality significantly impacts tree health. Poor soil can lead to nutrient deficiencies, stunted growth, and weak root systems. Regular soil testing can identify deficiencies in nutrients or pH imbalances. Address these issues by applying the appropriate fertilizers or soil amendments. Ensuring good drainage is also crucial to prevent waterlogging and root rot.

Addressing these common issues requires a combination of proactive measures, regular maintenance, and sometimes professional assistance. Keeping a watchful eye on your trees and responding promptly to any signs of distress can ensure they remain healthy and vibrant features in your landscape.

Mary Jane Duford
Mary Jane Duford

Mary Jane Duford is a passionate gardener and well-acclaimed authority in the world of horticulture. As a certified Master Gardener and Permaculture Garden Designer with over a decade of hands-on experience, she has honed her skills to cultivate a deeper understanding of the natural world around us. Beyond her gardening prowess, Mary Jane holds a distinct edge as a Professional Engineer, an expertise that often intertwines with her gardening methodologies, bringing a unique perspective to her readers.

She is the proud founder of the renowned gardening website, Home for the Harvest, a platform dedicated to helping fellow gardeners, both novice and experienced, find their green thumbs. Her gardening expertise hasn't gone unnoticed; she's been spotlighted as a go-to gardening expert by notable publications like Better Homes & Gardens, Good Housekeeping, Mother Earth News, Real Simple, and the National Garden Bureau.

Delving deep into specific fields of study within horticulture, Mary Jane has an extensive knowledge base on sustainable gardening practices (including permaculture), soil science, and selecting cultivars well-suited to home gardeners. Her passion isn't just limited to plants; she's a staunch advocate for holistic, eco-friendly gardening techniques that benefit both flora and fauna.

Currently residing in the picturesque Okanagan Valley, Mary Jane cherishes the time she spends with her family amidst nature, always exploring, learning, and growing both as a gardener and as an individual.

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