Garden Tidbits - Expert Advice for the Garden

Planting a Tree


A tree planted in a hole without spreading the roots.


Trees, embodying as they do all of nature's cycles—germination, growth, vigorous life, death and decay—have long inspired poets, writers and artists. In literature, planting a tree often becomes a symbol of renewal and an act of faith in the future. Oddly enough, one of the most inaccurate literary works about tree-planting is perhaps the most popular.  In The Man Who Planted Trees, Jean Giono weaves a simple tale about a shepherd named Elzeard Bouffier, who lived in a barren, drought-riddled district in the southern French Alps. Each day Elzeard planted 100 acorns on the sunny hillsides nearby. He grew birch seedlings and planted them in the valleys. And, according to the story, the author returns only 18 years later to find a forest, birds returned and dried-up creeks flowing with water. The people of the region returned to abandoned villages and proclaimed the wonder of this "natural" forest. The moral being, "one unlearned peasant had completed a work worthy of God."


What most people don't realize is that this charming story is an allegory, a work of fiction. Such a transformation is an ecological impossibility. An award-winning animated film was based upon Giono's fable was released with a short profile on Giono in which he states "that the purpose in creating the character of Bouffier was to make people love the tree, or more precisely, to make them love planting trees." 

It should be noted that the following technique assumes the gardener has chosen the right rootstock for the soil. For example, plum trees can handle clay soils, peach trees can’t.

Use a spading fork to work the soil in order to keep from "slicking" the sides of a very shallow “hole”—more like just heaving, breaking open the soil. Save your sweat and dig only as shallow and narrow as is necessary to fit the root system of your transplant. Remember, a six- to 12-inch planting mound is more important than the “hole”, therefore, the hole should only be as deep as those roots which won't be covered by the mound. Often the mound will shrink as the soil settles. So mound a bit higher to get a final height of six to-12 inches.

When planting a bareroot tree on a six- to 12- inch-high planting mound, a planting hole often isn't required. With a bareroot tree, soak it in water while making the mound. This rehydrates the tissue and washes off anything clinging to the roots.

Next, all the grass and weeds are removed from the two- to four-foot diameter of the mound-to-be, to allow for the soil to settle. Then, with a spading fork, heave and crack the native soil within the entire circle. Now, scrape up good soil from the surrounding area (after the weeds have been skimmed off) and make a small cone of soil, ten- to 16-inches wide and tall, in the center of the circle. Then spread the roots of the bareroot tree over the top of this cone of soil. (If you’re planting a container-grown or tube-grown plants, make sure to tear apart any well-knitted roots, knock off much of the planting mix, and spread out any circling roots on the soil cone.) Either way, make sure some of the exposed roots are tucked into the native soil that was fractured open with the spading fork. After the roots of the trees are spread evenly out on the cone of soil, gather plenty of topsoil to make the rest of the mound. Make the final mound twice as wide as it is tall. Cover the tree's trunk to the same depth as it was in the growing grounds. This is noted by a marked change in color on the trunk. Tamp the soil with your shoes to eliminate air pockets that can desiccate young roots. (The soil in the mound can be amended for better drainage so long as some of the tree's roots are placed in unamended soil.) Rake the finished mound to look like a gentle knoll.



Note: If you have gophers, a big hole is needed to allow for a protective wire basket. The bigger the basket, the more roots you'll protect from these hungry little devils. Be sure the upper edge of the basket sticks six inches above the soil and mulch to keep nocturnally-wandering gophers from slipping inside your secured perimeter. For the wire basket, simply dig a hole two to three feet deep and wide, put the basket in and fill the hole again—just like the Army!

After planting, soak the entire mound once or twice. Then mulch the mound and beyond about 4 inches deep, making sure that the mulch stays at least 6 to 12 inches away from the trunk. Then water outside the mound with drip irrigation tubing in a loop around the mound to make the roots “explore” the surrounding native. A few weeks after the transplanting, depending on the weather, widen the loop to circle the base of the mound.

So many people have suspected the mounding method, even though I've used it with success with ornamentals and edibles for nearly ten years, I decided to call my two favorite authorities on trees—Carl Whitcomb, formerly of the Oklahoma State University at Stillwater, who pioneered the work on using less amendments; and Alex Shigo, formerly with the USDA Forest Service, the man who retaught the world how to properly prune.


When I asked Whitcomb if he'd had any experience with planting on mounds, he replied: "Yes! We [at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK] planted out some sycamores seven to eight years ago right on the ground with no planting hole or depression. We just poured a large cone of topsoil over the roots, with a steep angle. They needed more water the first several months during dry spells. But they rooted out well and one of them remains [the others were removed] and has a five-inch caliper. It hasn't received any supplemental watering for seven to eight years."


Shigo replied: "I'm all for it. The best botanical gardens in England and Australia have all [note: "all" should be italic] their trees planted on small mounds. It's easier to regulate watering from a position of dryness than from wetness." When I asked him why this technique hasn't caught on in America, he answered: "Our pioneering spirit still prevails. It's easier to treat trees as expendable than to show them the respect they deserve. Now that we've run out of land and we're trying to plant in tougher settings, like the prairies (where trees don't naturally occur in great abundance) we're finding out how important techniques like this one are."


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