Tree Planting Techniques – A Subtle Art

Interestingly, modern recommendations in tree-planting have become much more “Nativistic” regarding soils. Whereas, the ’70’s and ’80’s had everyone running for copious amounts of compost and better materials for the bedding of new plantings, current thinking has changed. In a way, it is actually more casual. Anyway, the reasons make sense. I also have to believe a smarter selectivity of species puts this idea over the top in terms of credibility as well. Landscape designers and even DIY homeowners do enough – or should do anyway – reading these days to be acquainted with Zonal tolerances. This is a huge concept, as the many folks digging up and replacing what looked so great for a year or two have found out.

(Left click any image to enlarge – they are designed for this larger view)

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In the end, the “simplicity” referred to above indicates these days that planting in native soils is by far the most intelligent method of planting. A “native soil” is the dirt you already have. Heck, it could have come from down the road or about anywhere at all, but it is what a homeowner must refer to as “native” because it’s what he’s got. There, that solves a definition! 😉  And these can most certainly vary wildly in terms of Ph, clay content and draining issues and, unfortunately – contaminants. In this case, I don’t use the “C” word with respect to much of anything more than the typical spills of diesel, oils and hydraulics that come from any job site where the earth has been adjusted or added by an excavation. But I mention it from first-hand experience – and disappointing experience at that. To wit:

In my experience, my nursery suppliers used to wait long periods for me to bring back some poor dead plant. They were always sort of surprised when I did and they were always more than delighted to replace them for free, simply owing to the fact that I made them live pretty much more than just about anyone else. But everyone has a “turkey”, I reckon. I had a large Scotch Pine we had planted in a hugely prominent area which always seemed to plain lag in development. In fact, it was a one way visit to Dead, the truth was. It surprised me because my record for successfully planting the huge specimens I loved dealing with was pretty much 100%. Well, we undid the guy wires and staking, dug the sucker out at great pain and finally replaced it with a gorgeous replacement – which started going downhill, almost immediately. The needles yellowed, making me wonder if we had not over watered it somehow. We went to the drastic moves, one at a time. Adding Superthrive (a great refurbishing root hormone with crazy art work on the little bottles), then adding some M-Roots, another tactic which literally regrows an alternative root system. Ugh – nothing worked and she blinked out on us. It was obviously in the dirt.

It turns out, yes, it was. Somehow, the area of this soil was so utterly concentrated with diesel, hydraulic fluid and the rest that we found out it was indeed the spot where all the machinery had been serviced for the entire neighborhood during the initial excavations. Obviously – and too late – we discovered what a simple soil analysis which cost a red hot $25 told us – that the soil was poison. Anyway, we took more samples as we excavated, discarded and completely replaced the soil and we were golden. The next tree we replanted grew nicely and is still looking good today. So here are 2 lessons: don’t take your soil for granted and don’t hesitate to get it analyzed. For the record, no matter how many amendments we may have added for this tree, the roots would have eventually discovered this little Mine of Death.

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Eventually, every single plant escapes the “planting zone” where it was initially planted. From that point on, what is native is what will either sustain it or kill it. Yes, I most definitely augment my plantings with some amending components. Inasmuch as most of any landscaper’s products come, pampered and spoiled, from nurseries, one wants to lessen the shock of transplantation. So I add the obligatory Vitamin B, even sometimes toss in some Super Thrive or a bit of root hormone just to get them going. I over-excavate as well, for sure. Loosening the soil for a young plant is merely smart. There are some stunning compaction levels in even the most regular soils, particularly if they have a severe clay content. That density can definitely retard a plant’s rooting process, so some over excavation is definitely called for – usually about twice the size of the root ball itself. Now this can mean some real digging!

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Now THAT’s a root ball!

I will also admit that certain soils I encounter need less than the hearty monster excavations. Softer soils can accommodate a virtual slit planting for success. Water and grab a beer.

In the end, successful planting requires just a bit of forethought and some luck. Needless to say watering is a huge key at the onset. I actually rarely fertilize my young trees and plants, outside of some liquid additives. such as the hormones and Vitamin B I mentioned to lessen the shock. I did have good luck using water soluble fertilizers, especially at planting times when the blooms were about to burst. A little Miracle Gro, which is almost immediately systemically-absorbed, can be reflected in mere days with a glorious result. But this is more salesmanship and client-stroking than the more long-term effects we are most definitely looking for.

Here – below –  is a bad scan only a landscaper could like. This is the 10 acre residence I have spoken of often enough in here – the one which had a semi-catastrophic rain and snow event which required much regrading – next door. We got all his water plus the hillside above which stretched for countless acres. It was The Deluge. Anyway, you can see we planted in virtual “dust” from looking at the hillside itself. You can also see the style and sizes of the plants we planted with regularity in the line-up of root balled Cherries and Crab’s in the bottom picture. We got about a truck a day for a while with about 3 times the amount of plants shown there. The large Sequoia in the “root ball picture” above was also for this property. It was 22 feet high and absolutely gorgeous. Planting was absurdly easy here and the fact is, aside from The Deluge, everything grew like crazy.


Nor did I add anything to that soil. It is a lake basin-type soil, soft and non-clayish, mostly very sandy. It required severe adjustments in terms of watering, however, where we settled for watering often after initial deep waterings, as opposed to watering for sustained periods. That’s another useful trick – an analysis of soil can determine watering frequencies. Clay-ish soils will require far, far less water than sandier types.

Needless to say, by the way, everything mentioned about trees applies to plants. Yes, all plants very in their particular needs, thus some research is still required for Zonal tolerances. But it can be quite surprising which plants can literally adjust, with maintenance – or lack thereof. The Variegated dogwood shrubs, for example, adapt to Reno, Nevada’s high-alkaline typically near-desert soils by dropping their leaves and by those leaves breaking down, supplying a natural rise in acidic levels by a natural process.

And some patience is most definitely required as we let them develop. After all, the pictures below show the difference two short years makes in a landscape.


Two years later:


Yes, you can have your cake and eat it too!


Or you can also hire out a few million guys and build your own irrigation system, just like Julius Caesar did! 😉


11 thoughts on “Tree Planting Techniques – A Subtle Art

  1. That was Bill’s place, Annette, my ex partner. He looked at that pile of dirt and said, “I paid so-and-so dollars for these sticks?” Hey, he is an motorcycle Ice Racer, lol. What’s he know? His wife liked it, anyway, so I was golden.

    I guess you noticed I put your neighborhood irrigation project up! Gotta love them Romans.

  2. Here in the Willamette Valley, we don’t have a lot of choice about watering, at least in the winter – everything gets waterlogged! But it does make fall a good planting season for trees.

    Out in front of my house, the city will plant trees for free in the strip between the sidewalk and the street. But at our house, they kept dying, no matter what was done to them – turns out all the rubble from construction of our house was about 3 feet down there, blocking the roots. They had thrown all sorts of random stuff down there to fill in the swamp that used to be here.
    .-= Tzipporah´s last blog ..The Prodigal Cat =-.

  3. Hi Steve, interesting about the oil and fluids in the soils of the pine tree. I have been reading various articles about planting into native soils now over the jazzed up soil in the hole. We always use the soil that is there for everything, but also always plant the smallest size tree, one gallon if possible. It works for us. 🙂
    .-= Frances´s last blog ..Winter Plant Portrait-Wallflowers, Erysimum =-.

  4. Yes, Tzipporah, I am more than familiar with the Willamette Valley rain. But we essentially follow all these standard techniques, just the same. Watering also seals the soil close to the new root system. After all, a void of air down there can kill a plant.

  5. Hi Steve,
    What a great article. That’s an interesting term…”zonal tolerances”. I am assuming it means how well plant material adapts to the native soil, although I am not sure.

    Other than the soil testing which is always a good idea (and I’ll admit I don’t typically do it), I’m not sure about the native soils theory. It makes sense if the plant material was grown in the same type of soil that exists on the property which will be its’ new home. But why would you put a plant in, for example, clay soil when it drains so poorly, or in a sandy soil that drains to quickly?

    I would assume by the time the roots are well established in either native soil (if it’s a good soil for growing) or an amended soil (very poor soil), the plant would be established enough to do well in whatever soil is beyond the soil in the hole that was dug. But why not give it a better chance and make it happy?

    .-= Susan´s last blog ..Feb 10, Careers in Landscape Architecture | Landscape Architecture Jobs =-.

  6. Actually, Susan, the term Zonal Tolerance is yet another ‘Snedekerism’, I guess, straight from my very own active imaginings and relates to Planting Zones and the adaptation of plants to their various climatic conditions. On the soil issue, lol, the only thing I have ever put into straight sand was grass, which I put on top. We had some soccer fields we turfed in Vancouver which were laid on 3 feet of sand, owing to drainage issues and the semi-constant rain there. If a soil is particularly tough, then, naturally, we make huge changes. If it uncommonly clayish, I generally recommend amending the soil in massive doses. We’re talking sand, some compost and large excavtors. Hideously bad soil won’t work for any plant. Having said that, there are plants which like their soil a bit clayish and some which prefer a fast-draining soil. My one advantage which may throw you a bit is that I have historically used drip irrigation in problematic spots out West. What this allows us to do is to water often – at times, 6 times a day, for a light watering to bathe the roots, as opposed to some massive dump of juice. We can also expand that outwards as a plant develops. For soils where there is a tight clay content, yes, we might over excavate more, for real. But, as I have said, water cures all ills, in my experience. Water breaks up clayish soils and lets the roots penetrate. It’s not like clay soils are devoid of nutrients, because they are typically mineral-rich as heck.

  7. Nice post, I like your style. I own a landscaping company in Austin TX. I’ve seen all kinds of interesting things under ground that the builders left behind. The best was a nail gun but usually we find coke cans or snack wrappers when we are out digging to plant trees or plants. As for what Frances had to say about planting the smallest tree possible, I’ve planted just about every size for 1 gal to 400 gal. Last time I checked the 400 gal Live Oak was planted almost 3 years and it doesn’t look like it has really rooted in yet. The 1 and 5 gal tree will root much faster and establish a more solid root system. Some of us just don’t want to wait so I go out and get them a tree that has over 12″ to the trunk.

  8. LOL, on the builder refuse. I have also done work on sites which – unbeknownst to me and certainly to buyer – were once city dump sites. There’s really no sensation like digging for a tree and bringing up bedsprings.

  9. Lol, I’ve never found bed springs but I’ve pulled out just about every type of tool used in construction. Picking up their trash seems like such a small thing to do when building a $400,000 house. Then these builders claim to be “green builders” even though they turn the buyers yard into a landfill.

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