How to Plant a Tree in 8 Simple Steps

By Erin Lindholm

Deciding to plant a tree on your property is a win-win scenario: Trees add beauty to your landscape, provide shade for your yard and living spaces, benefit wildlife, and add real value to your property.

As detailed in the step-by-step guide below, the actual process of planting trees is pretty straightforward. Really, the most challenging aspects about planting a tree are all of the decisions to consider before that shovel hits the dirt. A tree is a long-term investment, after all, so it’s important to get it right the first time! This guide covers everything from the costs of planting a tree, to helpful garden center lingo, and other considerations that will help you choose the right location—and find the right tree.

person shoveling dirt into hole with planted tree

Photo via Shutterstock

How Much Does it Cost to Plant a Tree?

Your best bet is to head to your local nursery or garden center and scout out what types of trees they carry and get an idea of the cost. If your project only requires one to two people to get the tree(s) home and you can prep and plant the trees yourselves, you can get away with a budget of $50 to $150 per tree—plus a little sweat and TLC.

However, there are a few key factors that, when considered altogether, provide a clearer picture of how much it costs to plant a tree. Questions to ask as you’re beginning your research into how to plant a tree include:

  • Will the tree (or trees) be young seedlings, a sapling (under 10 feet tall or just a few years old), or more mature? The larger and more established the tree is, the more costs go up.
  • Will you be able to DIY this planting project, or will you need to rent heavy equipment or hire labor?
  • Is the tree a common domestic variety or a more ornamental or exotic species?

Young seedlings may cost no more than other landscaping plants, but are also more difficult to care for through these critical early growth years. On the other hand, larger trees and exotic species can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars to plant.

The Best Time to Plant a Tree

What gardeners refer to as nature’s “dormant seasons” (early spring before trees start budding, or as fall sets in) are optimal times to plant a tree. This is when weather conditions are cool, allowing trees to establish roots before spring rains and warm weather encourage the tree to send its energy towards its top growth.

Although, generally speaking, healthy trees can be transplanted throughout the growing season—just be on the lookout for any indications that summer heat and dryness are stressing the tree. In tropical and subtropical climates, where trees grow year-round, you can plant a tree at any time as long as it gets sufficient water.

balled and burlapped tree next to planting hole

Photo via Shutterstock

Types of Tree Starters

There are two primary ways nurseries and garden centers sell trees to be planted:

Bare Root: Also sometimes called “container trees” because they’re raised and sold in their growing pots, bare root trees arrive ready to be planted ASAP! The bare, soilless roots are also often protected with a layer of mulch or newspaper. If you opt for a bare root tree, check to see if the roots have begun to circle in a root ball, which is damaging for the tree’s future growth. (See instructions below for how to break up the root ball before planting.)

Balled and Burlapped: Another way trees are sold is with their roots in soil, wrapped in burlap (a natural fiber that decomposes) or a synthetic burlap material (which won’t decompose). Trees sold balled and burlapped tend to be larger and more mature.

Picking a Healthy Tree

Avoid choosing a tree with visible gouges or scrapes on the trunk, where any tags or braces cut into the bark, or a tree that shows visible signs of girdling roots, which will inhibit the tree’s growth in years to come. Set yourself up for success with a healthy, happy tree!

What Type of Tree Should I Plant?

Planting a tree is a long-term proposition! Here are five considerations to weigh when deciding what species and type of tree to plant and where to plant a tree on your property:

Think About Regional Climate

Where you live directly impacts a tree’s health, growth, and longevity. Do you experience deep winter freezes? Hot, humid summers? What’s your average rainfall? Do you need to consider drought-resistant plants, specifically? All of these factors need to be considered when choosing a tree to plant in your yard.

Monitor Sun Exposure and Shade

Like all other plants, different types of trees thrive with varying degrees of sun and shade exposure. Once you’ve decided on a general area of where to plant, observe how much sun and shade that site receives. Will it be shaded by other trees, your home, or other structures on your property? Or will it receive bright, direct south-facing sun? From here, you can narrow down your tree selection to one that fits the location.

Think About Overhead and Underground Conflicts

The importance of this point cannot be underestimated! Trees planted too close to structures when they’re young can later crack foundations, sidewalks, and driveways; compromise septic systems and sewer pipes; and pose a real danger to structures and power lines, especially in dangerous high-wind conditions.

Likewise, before you break ground on your tree-planting project, make sure all underground utilities have been identified and marked. The U.S. has a designated 811 national call-before-you-dig hotline to answer questions and provide resources, and many states have an 811 website of their own.

Choosing the Right Tree for the Location

The International Society of Arboriculture has a helpful infographic detailing where trees of various heights should be considered for planting on a home’s property, divided by zones and potential conflicts. The Arbor Day Foundation also has other good tips for choosing the right tree for the right location.

Know Your Soil—and Skip the Enhancements

Knowing what native type of soil your property has helps when deciding on a tree to plant. But whether you have dry and sandy soil or dense and clay-rich soil, most experts advise against introducing fertilizers or nutrient-enhanced soil to the planting site. It’s an old practice that may ultimately negatively impact the tree’s development. As a tree grows, its roots will stretch well beyond its planting hole, which is why choosing a tree compatible with the native composition of your soil is all the more important.

Consider Decorative Ornamentation

Of course, one of the great joys of having trees to care for is enjoying how they change through the seasons, from spring blooms to vibrant fall foliage. Healthy and beautiful trees give added value to your property; it’s worth considering contacting a local arborist for insights into what sorts of trees would best thrive in your climate and yard and how they’d flourish in time. (An arborist can also help identify pests or diseases when the issue arises.)

freshly planted tree covered in straw and logs

Photo via Leilani Smith

How to Plant a Tree

Now we’ll walk you through the (surprisingly easy) process of planting a tree. Keep in mind that this DIY guide is intended for seedling and sapling trees—larger trees will require more labor and potentially heavy machinery, so it’s best to consult a professional in this case.

Tools and Materials Needed

  • Shovel
  • Work gloves
  • Tarp (optional)
  • Sharp knife
  • Tree stakes and ties (optional)
  • Garden hose
  • Mulch

Step 1: Score the Planting Site

The mission here is to have a planting hole three to four times larger than the planting container or burlap-wrapped base of your new tree. Set the tree down on the planting site. With the tip of a shovel, move around the tree, making notches in the sod until you’ve completed a full circle.

Step 2: Dig the Hole

First, remove the top grass or sod layer, if applicable. (It should be easy enough to pull up with your hands or shovel out since it was cut making the circle.) Then, start digging! The hole should have sloping sides and have the same depth as the container the tree came in. Keep dug-out soil to the side.

Use a Tarp

If you prefer, shovel soil onto a tarp to leave less of a mess later.

Step 3: Prepare Tree for Planting

For balled and burlapped trees, remove the wire basket and any other protective outer wrapping.

For bare root trees, lay the container down on its side and gently roll it back and forth, pressing on the container to loosen the soil and roots inside. Remove the tree from the container, gently. Inspect the bottom of the soil for indications of a root ball (circling roots). To break up a constricting root ball, gently cut an “X” across the bottom of the roots with a sharp knife, plus a few vertical cuts along the sides of the roots. Doing so will further encourage outward growth of the roots.

Step 4: Place Tree in the Hole

Center the base of the tree in the bottom of the hole. If your tree came balled and burlapped, cut away as much of the fabric as possible from the sides of the root ball, and release the branches. Adjust the placement and position of the tree as necessary.

Step 5: Backfill the Hole

Refill the hole with the same soil that was previously shoveled out, tamping lightly with the back of the shovel as you go. About halfway through, give the tree and surrounding soil a good watering. Continue filling in the rest of the hole and water again.

Step 6: Install Tree Stakes (optional)

Tree stakes help keep your newly-planted tree straight and upright while its roots establish. They’re particularly important in windy regions and helpful but optional in other climates. Drive stake(s) into the ground 8 to 12 inches from the tree trunk. A single stake offers some support, while three stakes positioned as a triangle around the tree offer maximum support. Tie stake(s) to the trunk with enough give for the tree to move with the wind. If tied too tightly, the binding can gouge the tree’s trunk.

Step 7: Cover with Mulch

Cover the dirt mound with a few inches of mulch, which helps insulate the soil and roots from hot and cold extremes, controls weed growth, and keeps the soil moist. These things are absolutely essential in the first several weeks after planting to encourage the tree’s roots to establish.

Protect Your Tree

If you’re concerned about the tender bark on your young tree, look into purchasing a tree wrap made from biodegradable materials. Wrap from the bottom upwards.

Step 8: Give the Tree Breathing Room

While it’s a natural instinct to want to maintain the tree by pruning and using fertilizers, newly-planted trees need their own time to grow into their new location. Keep soil moist in line with the tree’s watering instructions, but prune the tree sparingly—if at all—for the first growing season. (Dead, broken, or sick limbs are okay to trim.) A soil test kit can help identify if the tree would benefit from applying a surface fertilizer once it’s more firmly established.

Have you planted a tree before? Do you have any tips you’d like to share? Comment below—we’d love to hear from you!

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