Sarah Browning: Choosing a good tree and getting it started

Sarah Browning: Choosing a good tree and getting it started

Tree roots

When the tree has been planted, it's first main roots should be just below the soil surface.

Fall’s cooler temperatures, increased moisture and reduced humidity allow properly planted trees to establish their root systems quickly, giving them a jump-start on spring growth. With Emerald Ash Borer looming in our state’s future, bringing the death of many trees, September is a great time to start planting new trees.

Put some thought into what you will plant. Many trees grow well in Nebraska but aren’t widely planted. Emerald ash borer is again teaching us a basic lesson -- species diversity is critical. So look at what your neighbor has planted in their yard and plant something different. The Nebraska Statewide Arboretum has put together two lists of recommended trees based on your location in the state. Use these ideas to help in your tree selection.

* Trees for Eastern Nebraska,

* Trees for Western Nebraska,

Pay close attention to the planting site. One of the most common mistakes made when planting trees, is to underestimate the tree’s mature size. To avoid conflicts with buildings, utility lines and other trees, and to ensure the tree can live in this site for many years to come, look up and around as you consider the mature height and width of any trees you may plant.

Pay attention to your soil. If it’s sandy, you may need a species that is drought tolerant, such as Bur Oak, while heavier clay soils may call for a tree adapted to higher levels of soil moisture, like Swamp White or English Oak.

Try to find a tree grown using a "grow bag" production system. These trees have a dense, fibrous root system that enables them to establish more easily on a new site. The grow bag system greatly reduces planting depth and girdling root problems.

If you have to buy a tree in a traditional black plastic container, inspect the root system before buying. If the tree is root bound or has excessive spiraling or circling roots, don’t buy it.

You only get one shot at planting a tree properly, so do it right the first time. Don’t dig the planting hole first, begin by working with your tree’s root system.

For container-grown trees, carefully remove any loose growing medium from around the roots by shaking, soaking or washing with a hose. Exposing the root system helps reveal circling, hooking and girdling root problems and will also allow for better root-soil contact when the tree is planted. Circling roots should be loosened and spread laterally if possible before planting. Cutting of larger roots that can’t be straightened may be necessary to prevent girdling and to better insure a laterally spreading root system. This includes any hooked roots that are growing downwards.

When the tree has been planted, it's first main roots should be just below the soil surface. Estimate the depth of the planting hole needed with this in mind. Now that you know the depth of the root ball, dig a hole as deep as needed and twice as wide. Digging a wide hole ensures a planting site where newly developing roots can easily establish themselves laterally into the surrounding soil and develop a healthy root system.

For balled and burlap trees remove the wire basket and burlap. Check for the location of the first main lateral roots before planting, by pushing a surveyor’s spike or long-bladed screwdriver into the soil about the base of the trunk. Excess soil over the root ball should be removed at this time and the roots should be examined for any problems such as hooking or girdling.

If maintaining the integrity of the soil ball is important or is required by the nursery, then the tree can be placed in the hole first before the top 12-18 inches of the wire basket and burlap are cut away. Again, remove excess soil over the root ball. If necessary, add additional soil beneath the root ball to bring it up to a proper height in the planting hole. Pull the root ball to one side and add additional soil beneath it. Then rock the root ball to the other side and add soil again. Repeat the process until the tree’s primary lateral roots are located at or near the soil surface. Even a couple inches of excess soil over the root system can be detrimental to the health and vigor of the tree’s root system.

After your tree is in the ground, add a 3- to 4-inch layer of wood chip mulch to protect tree roots from extreme weather conditions, eliminate weed and grass competition and preserve soil moisture. Don’t allow mulch to rest directly against the trunk of the tree as this can encourage circling roots, trap excess moisture and lead to insect and disease problems.

Staking is not always required at planting, particularly for small trees or trees planted in protected areas. However, trees that are tall and leggy or in high wind areas should be staked. The goal of staking is to anchor the root ball and prevent newly developed root hairs from breaking, not to eliminate all movement within the stem of the tree.

Be sure to water your tree at planting. The amount of water needed will depend on the soil type and the type of tree planted. Water the day after planting, three days later and three days after that. Continue monitoring your newly planted tree to be sure it doesn’t get too dry, but remember that more newly planted trees die from too much water than from not enough. If you can easily push a 6-inch screwdriver into the soil surrounding the tree, you are probably providing adequate moisture. Using a turf irrigation system to water trees may not be optimal for the tree’s requirements.

Fertilization of trees at planting is not recommended or necessary.

Sarah Browning is an extension educator with Nebraska Extension and can be reached at 402-441-7180 or


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