Forest Friends Tree Planting and Care Guidance

Thank you for planting a new native tree in your yard to help maintain and improve our urban forest! Your tree is on the small size, making it easy to plant and maintain. With proper planting and care, it will grow and thrive.

Keep your tree well-watered until you are ready to plant. You can hold the plant for several weeks or months, even, but it must be watered every day or two until you plant it! Container grown plants are typically in a loose soil mix designed to drain water quickly so that roots don’t rot from overwatering. But this means that you have to water very frequently to keep them healthy. Watering is often necessary even if it rains, since the small pot is not a big catchment area.


  1. A Forest Friends advisor has helped you select the right tree for the right place in your yard. Make sure to stick to your plan since different trees like different conditions.
  2. CAUTION: If you don’t know where your utility lines are, CALL 811 two to three working days before you dig to get the lines marked.
  3. Proper planting depth is critical for long-term health of the tree. Start by locating the root flare of the tree. The root flare is where the first main root attaches to the trunk. You may need to remove excess soil from across the top of the root ball to expose the root flare. The root flare should be located at ground level and no deeper. When planting, the root flare should be located slightly above ground level (1-2 inches). The planting hole should be dug slightly shallower than the root ball and 2 to 5 times wider. Do not loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole; this will cause the root ball to settle deeper into the ground over time. Better to plant a little high than too low. Soil can always be mounded over the root ball if it is a bit too high.
  4. Before placing the tree in its hole, loosen roots around the edge of the root ball and remove most or all of the potting soil (you can even wash the roots by dunking in a bucket of water or running a hose over the root ball). Gently tease the roots out to encourage growing into the surrounding soil. If the tree is root bound, with a lot of tough roots encircling the edge of the ball, cut out in-growing ones, or make several slices with a knife though the edge of the ball from top to bottom and try to pull some of the roots out. This will not hurt the plant, but, again, will encourage the roots to grow outward.
  5. After placing the tree in the hole, backfill with native soil (not amended or potting soil) and lightly tamp. Lastly, apply a two- to three-inch layer of organic mulch, but do not allow mulch to touch the trunk of the tree (this can cause rot, infestation, and poor growth, or even death). Then, water slowly until soil is saturated.

Water is the key! No need for fertilizer, and prune only diseased, broken, or dead branches (if in doubt, wait until spring). Do water every day for a week or two (unless the tree is in poorly drained soil). Then water once a week for the next year unless we get a LOT of rain. Remember that most of the roots will remain in a little ball about the size of the pot until the tree starts to grow more. Keeping a 2 to 3-inch berm around the tree about the diameter of the in-ground roots will help to focus water on that root ball for the first year. Just don’t overwater either – use common sense. In the winter, you may need to water less.


Resource links:

See this simple and excellent planting graphic by Columbia Green.

Planting Trees and Shrubs the Right Way – Fine Gardening
Packaging determines how to put your new purchase in the ground
Detailed planting guide with good illustrations from Fine Gardening:
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It’s (Fall) Shrub and Tree Planting Time… Mind Your Roots! – Clemson Cooperative Extension Home & Garden Information Center
Basic planting guide with good explanation of how to handle roots.
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Proper Tree Planting – Clemson Cooperative Extension Home & Garden Information Center
Short article that explains planting depth and soil amendments (use them lightly)
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Plant A Tree – Clemson Cooperative Extension Home & Garden Information Center
Short article on hole size and root flare with some photos.
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Watering Shrubs and Trees – Clemson Cooperative Extension Home & Garden Information Center
Details about watering – important and helpful!
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