Arbor Day: Planting Trees "Properly"

James Hodges
Extension Agent - Senior Associate
Greenwood County

According to the National Arbor Day Foundation, on January 4, 1872, J. Sterling Morton first proposed a tree-planting holiday to be called "Arbor Day" at a meeting of the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture. The date was set for April 10, 1872. Prizes were offered to counties and individuals for planting properly the largest number of trees on that day. It was estimated that more than one million trees were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day. It was a day when school children and adults participated in the event which had two purposes.

  1. The first was to encourage the planting of trees and to engage the community in the activity for the benefit of all.
  2. Prizes were given out for "Quantity of Properly Planted Trees" by individuals and/or entire communities. The key was properly planted trees. Sterling, a writer and newspaper publisher, made it a personal goal to provide correct information on how to plant and care for trees and other landscape plants.

Nothing is more discouraging than a dead tree that we planted ourselves. The failure of the tree to survive is a personal failure for us. All too often, a tree's success in our landscape is determined on the day it is planted by those who place it in the soil. A poorly planted tree is often doomed to hardship and eventual death, rather than our intended purpose of shade and landscape beauty. Tree planting standard guidelines have changed over the years as new research is generated. One old concept was deep planting of trees. We don't want the roots to dry out, so the tendency is to err on the side of too deep rather than risk any chance of planting too shallow. This has been shown to be a big error in many situations. Soils, such as our heavy clays, are not forgiving on deeply planted trees. Trees have a natural root flare (see Photo 1) at the point where they emerge from the soil which helps the tree to anchor itself into the soil for long-term stability. Covering this up can lead to problems as the tree grows. Check your purchased ball and burlap trees or container-grown trees to make sure that they were not grown too deeply. If so, remove a few inches of soil to reveal the first set of roots emerging from the tree stem, and plant your tree in the soil at this new correct depth (see Photo 2). Your trees will thank you. Deep-planted trees often develop problems years later and don't survive to beautiful maturity. The greatest thanks you can receive for tree planting is a nice tree to enjoy for many years that you leave for another generation.

The natural root flare of a correctly planted tree is clearly visible.
Photo 1: This correctly planted mature oak shows the natural root flare. In addition, mulch has been applied correctly about 3-4 inches deep and several inches away from the stem.
James Hodges, ©Clemson Extension

Image depicts a tree that is being planted at the correct depth after removing soil to reveal the root flare.
Photo 2: This tree is being planted at the right depth after removing soil to reveal the root flare at the top of the root system.
James Hodges, ©Clemson Extension

A second serious mistake in tree care is deep mulching and piling mulch onto the tree trunk (see Photo 3). Your mulched area around the tree should resemble a doughnut with the area several inches around the tree trunk open. More is not better with mulches; a 3- to 4-inch depth is more than sufficient to hold moisture and retard weeds (see Photo 1).

This image depicts deep or volcano mulching.
Photo 3: The practice of deep mulching by piling mulch heavily on the stem of the tree (volcano mulching) encourages disease and shallow circling roots (see Photo 4) that can actually strangle the tree later in life.
James Hodges, ©Clemson Extension

A tree that was deeply planted and mulched and grew roots that are now girdling the stem
Photo 4: This oak was planted and mulched too deeply. As a result, it grew new roots that are now girdling the stem. Notice the dark spot on the trunk caused by a boring insect attacking the declining tree.
James Hodges, ©Clemson Extension

Additional information on planting and mulching correctly is available at HGIC 1001, Planting Trees Correctly; HGIC 1604, Mulch; the poster, How to Plant a Tree (PDF format) and the Breeze presentation, Planting Trees & Shrubs (Requires Adobe Flash Player).

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