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This post was written by Dave Ciotoli, Neave Group landscape designer.

Tree-Swing-1It’s no secret today why you see more specimen varieties of trees around homes. Trees are mass-produced at farms–rows and rows of different types of trees are planted in acres and acres of fields according to supply and demand.

Because of the production of these trees in mass quantities, there are a few extra steps needed when considering planting.

When a tree is large enough to harvest from a tree farm, it is usually plucked using a machine attachment called a spade. This is a set of four hydraulic blades that look like giant shovels. The blades cut into the ground and lift the root system undisturbed.

The “root ball” is then wrapped in burlap and set in a wire basket. Each basket is tied and tightened before the tree is ready to be brought to a nursery for sale (When you hear the word, B&B tree, this simply means “balled and burlapped”).

How to plant trees

Trees produced at tree farms require a planting technique that is commonly overlooked. Because of the dynamics of the tree spading process, soil is pressed up against the trunk and on top of the root ball. This extra soil needs to be removed before placing the tree in the hole it’s being planted in.

Once it is determined where the tree will be planted, the tree can be placed next to its future home. Open the top of the tree ball so that the compacted soil on top can be removed. A hand pick is best for scraping down the top of the root ball. Soil should be removed until the root flare is exposed.

The root flare of a balled and burlapped tree should be exposed before planting the tree
The root flare of a balled and burlapped tree should be exposed before planting the tree

The root flare is the point at the base of the trunk where the trunk spreads horizontally and meets the start of the root. Burying this part of the tree will choke it and eventually, the tree will get stressed and start to send roots to the surface in search of oxygen. This will lead to girdling roots.

Once the root flare is exposed, an accurate depth for planting the root ball can be measured. The depth of the hole should be the measurement from the bottom of the root ball to the root flare. The width should be enough to allow at least 4-6 inches of good organic soil around the ball. Ideally, the width of the hole should be twice the size of the root ball of the tree but this isn’t always practical.

Once the hole is dug, the tree should be examined for the best view. The tree should only be placed in the hole once and shouldn’t need to be turned.

Once your tree is set in the hole, a composted, organic soil should be shoveled in and around the root ball.

Excessive soil over a tree's root flare can choke the roots and cause girdling, as seen here.
Excessive soil over a tree’s root flare can choke the roots and cause girdling, as seen here.

The burlap needs to be cut and rolled down and buried under the soil. If the burlap is exposed to air it will dry out the tree by”wicking” the water away.

Once completely backfilled with the root flare still exposed, a little extra soil can be shoveled around the surface of the root ball and compacted to create a tree ring.  This will hold water when it rains and direct it to the root ball.

The tree may need to be staked as well depending on the exposure to wind. Any tree can be staked when planted but should be removed one year after planting. Leaving the tree tethered to stakes will actually weaken the tree in the long run as a kind of “crutch”.

If planted correctly a tree should live for decades. Over the years it will strengthen it roots and reach for the sky.


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