Proper planting is critical to tree success


Fall is the best season to plant landscape and fruit-bearing trees. For your visions of beauty, shade and bounty to be achieved, it is crucial to select and plant your tree correctly.

Success begins at the garden center with choosing a quality plant. Now trees purchased are grown in a container. Bare-root plants can be found in mid-to-late winter in a garden center or via mail order. Selecting and planting bare root is a topic for another day.

Shoppers usually choose the largest one at the garden center. In fact, it may be better to choose one that is smaller or medium sized. The larger tree may be slower to get going after planting.

The root system of a tree that grows from a seed reaches way beyond the branch spread in all directions. For a container grown tree, the entire root system is wrapped around the inside of the container. The larger the tree the more of an issue this can be.

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There are special containers that prevent these circling roots, but tree growers choose the less expensive round containers as buyers don’t demand otherwise.

The problem with round containers begins in the initial container with roots circling the container. The plants are later moved into larger containers to achieve a larger tree. These circling roots are often buried in the process and a new larger circle of roots begins in the new container.

After the tree is planted, these roots grow larger in diameter over time as does the tree’s trunk. If the initial container was small, the circling roots begin to strangle the trunk and the tree begins to decline. Living Christmas trees are especially prone to this problem, but any large tree species can be affected.

Once the roots are embedded in the trunk and the tree decline becomes apparent it is too late to remedy the problem.

Another issue with circling roots on a newly planted container grown tree is weak anchorage. Think of the playground “animals” on a strong spring that kids ride on. They can lean in any direction. A tree with a smaller circle of roots moves around in a similar way. A well-rooted tree should not move around at the base but rather bend like a fishing pole with a stable base and increased bending as you move up the trunk.

The solution to these problems is first to check the base of the tree in the container for visible circling roots 3-4 inches away from the trunk, indicating the problem that began in a smaller container. Move the trunk around to notice whether it wallows around at the base or appears to be well anchored.

When you bring a tree home, use a hose to wash away some of the growing mix in the top few inches of the root cylinder. Use hand pruners to cut any circling roots in 2-3 places around the trunk.

Next wash away an inch or two of soil from the outside of the cylinder of soil and roots. Again, cut all roots circling the cylinder in 3-4 places. Trust me on this! I realize it seems like you are hurting the plant, but in fact within a few weeks of planting, fresh, new roots will be emerging from the cut root ends. These roots grow out into the soil creating a much better established root system by the time the stresses of heat return next summer.

The classic proper way to dig a hole is to make the hole 2-3 times as wide as the root cylinder but no deeper than the cylinder. The topmost root should be at the soil surface of the newly planted tree. A very helpful diagram and additional tree selection and planting information can be found at

Do not put compost, potting soil or fertilizer in the planting hole. Use the soil you removed from the hole to refill around the tree roots. The tree species chosen will have to grow in the soil on the site. If that soil is not suitable, then a different species should be chosen. The tree won’t benefit from supplemental fertilizing until late spring or early summer next year.

Staking isn’t always necessary when the tree was well grown and when you plant a deciduous tree in fall, allowing several months of leafless branches before the wind begins to affect the tree.

If you stake, make sure to use a soft, flexible material around the tree and leave a little slack when attaching the wires to the stake to allow a few inches of movement. This movement will help the trunk develop stronger tissues. Stakes and wires should be removed in six to 10 months.

After planting, make a circular berm of soil 2-3 times the width of the root cylinder and about 4 inches high. You can fill this berm with water to deeply soak the soil where most of the tree’s roots are during the first critical year after planting.

Finally, mulch as wide of an area around the tree as is aesthetically acceptable to you and about 4 inches deep. This will prevent weed competition and damage from string trimmers and lawnmowers. Do not pile mulch against the tree’s trunk.

Take advantage of the coming weeks to select and plant a well-adapted tree in your landscape. Pay attention to these details I’ve mentioned, and you will be well on your way to a beautiful, bountiful tree that is a valuable investment for many years to come.

Robert “Skip” Richter is the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension horticulture agent for Brazos County. For local gardening information and events, visit Gardening questions? Call Skip at 823-0129 or email