When you plant, it would be good to have a landscape plan and to plant your trees and shrubs according to that plan. It is best to place trees and shrubs so they can develop without crowding each other, structures, or utility lines.

It helps to know the mature size of the tree or shrub you are planting and that information is available from your nursery or from other green industry sources. If figures for width are not available you can estimate a plant’s spread, which will be generally equal to its mature height. For example, a tree that grows about 20 feet tall will spread its branches about that same distance and should be planted about 10 feet from structures or other trees.

You can decrease future maintenance problems with proper placement of trees. Strong wooded shade trees like our native Oaks should be placed at least 20 feet from structures and utility lines. Soft wooded or brittle trees such as Pecan should be further away. Very large shade trees should be spaced about 50 feet apart. Medium sized trees like Cedar Elm should be about 35 feet apart. And small trees like Redbud and Mt. Laurel should be about 15 feet apart and about 8 to 10 feet from structures.

Shrubs and hedges also need to be properly spaced. Shrubs should be spaced about half of their mature spread from buildings and from other shrubs. Two different types of shrubs should be spaced one half the total spread of both plants. Hedges can be spaced closer together with low plants (3 to 4 feet high) planted about 18 inches apart and tall plants spaced about 4 feet apart.

In Texas, the ideal time to plant a tree is fall, winter, spring, or summer (i.e. anytime). When you can find the tree you want, in good condition and you have a good hole, plant the tree. Proper planting is the essential procedure and digging a good hole is the key to proper planting. It is better to plant a $50 tree in a $200 hole than a $200 tree in a $50 hole. Follow these steps and you will enjoy a vigorous healthy tree for a long time.

Dig a shallow planting hole that is twice as wide as it is deep. Do not dig the hole deeper than the root ball and then back fill the hole. Your tree will eventually settle and end up too deep and that often is deadly. The wide hole loosens soil allowing the new root system to grow into that loosened soil, quickly establishing and stabilizing your new tree.

Prune only if necessary. Only remove damaged or broken branches. Do not prune the small suckers on the trunk or remove lower growth to mistakenly encourage top growth. Simply put, the more green leaves your new tree has, the faster it will grow, the thicker it will grow, and the faster is will grow roots. We encourage limited or no pruning for several to many years.

Prepare the hole and soil. There are good organic fertilizers and slow release chemical fertilizers that will not burn tender roots that can be added to the loosened soil when the tree is planted. There are also many other fertilizers that will burn the new roots, so be careful and certain you are using a fertilizer that will not burn. I encourage the use of organic fertilizers. Generally, there is no need to amend our native soil with anything else and simply replacing the loosened soil will give the new roots good soil in which to establish and grow. Some of our sandy soils or the soils that are brought in as fill or “top soil” may need to be amended with organic matter such as compost (never us peat moss products) or may need to be replaced with a good soil mix. Most of the time, using the soil that came from the hole with nothing added is just fine.

Place the tree at the proper height with the root flare of the tree exposed. You may need to remove soil from the top of the container to find the root flare. If the tree is balled and burl aped, you will need to find the level of the root flare. Do not plant at the level the burlap is secured to the tree. Never lift the tree by the trunk, always lift with the container or the root ball. There are some special planting techniques that allow you to plant the tree higher, never plant the tree lower than the root flare. Most of the problems we see with establishing new trees are caused by covering the root flare. Most of the deaths we see with established trees are caused by covering the root flare. Do not plant the tree deeper in the hole so it won’t fall over. Plant the new tree at the level of the root flare in a shallow hole.

Remove burlap, felt, wire baskets, nylon twine, nylon straps, and plastic containers. As silly as this may sound, when we are called to determine the problem with a planted tree, most of the time the problem is that the tree was planted to deep or the above items were not removed when the tree was planted; especially if the tree was “professionally” planted. We recommend that you not purchase any tree that comes in a nylon bag, but if you have, remove the nylon or fake burlap bag. Fill the hole, firming the soil to eliminate air pockets and to hold the tree in place. You can settle the back fill with water as you add soil. Form a ridge of soil 4-6 inches high around the margin of the hole (where the root ball meets the sides of the hole) to hold water. You want water to penetrate the root ball and travel out into the planting hole when you water.

Stake the tree if necessary. I discourage staking but it is sometimes necessary. Remove the staking as soon as the tree is firmly rooted or one year after planting. Staking often injures young trees and can delay the trees stability growth. Use broad soft strapping material that is loosely attached to the tree, never wrap the straps around a trunk or branch. As a rule, the staking should not be left on the tree for more than one year.

Mulch over the root ball and planting hole with organic matter such as wood chips, leaf litter, or shredded bark. Do not use mulch that contains peat moss or that is finely shredded. Mulch should be installed 2 to 4 inches deep over the root ball of the tree and should not touch the trunk of the new tree. Mulch conserves moisture in the soil, insulates the young roots from heat and cold, reduces weed and grass invasion (very important for keeping weed eaters away from the young tree).

Water regularly and wisely. Twice a week for the first month, once a week for the next six months, when needed after that. Fill the well, let it drain, and then fill it again. You are trying to use about the same volume of water as the original container the tree was is. We get the same symptoms in a tree from too much water and from not enough water. Do not assume that a wilting tree is caused from lack of water. Check the soil 4 inches deep. If it is saturated at that depth, the wilting is caused by too much water and you need to reduce irrigation and you may need to remove mulch to let the soil dry. Replace the mulch as soon as the soil has dried.

These steps will give your new tree a wonderful start and will allow your new tree to develop into a low maintenance vigorous asset to your property. These steps are very easy to do at the time of planting. Correcting them later often costs more than the tree cost to purchase and install. Do it right from the beginning and you will enjoy a beautiful shade tree for your life time.

David Vaughan
San Antonio, Texas