12 Steps to Planting a Great Tree

It happens in life that we sometimes get into something before taking the necessary steps to get it done right. Planting a tree is one of those. And I have to admit, I’ve fell into the trap before.

A planting hole 2 time wider and no deeper than necessary is very important to proper tree planting.

Planting a tree is more than just digging a hole in the ground. There are some important questions to answer before you dig your planting hole.

Lets set the scene. You’re at the garden center, picking up some annuals for the flower beds and you happen to walk by some of the potted trees. And thats when you see it, some pretty looking, red fall colored tree on the tag and think, “Man, that would look great in the corner of the yard!” So you buy the tree (who can resist an impulse buy), take it home and plant it carefully. You water it, mulch it, and do all the things a person is supposed to do to care for a tree in an urban environment. But then it gets sick, or dies right away. Or after 15-20 years it starts to die and you wonder where you went wrong.

Well, you missed a few very important steps that can mean the difference between a waste of time and money and a long lived, healthy, investment. Lets go over them:

Step 1 – Find a spot

Go out in your yard where you want a tree. Stand right in the spot, then look up. Small trees (most of them) grow to be BIG trees. make sure there aren’t power lines or other obstructions overhead that the tree will grow into. Utility companies have the right of way up there, prepare for it to be chopped off for clearance as it grows. If your spot does have power lines, note the rough hight of the lowest line, subtract 10 feet, and that is the maximum hight a tree you will buy should get.

Step 2 – Call before you dig

Take out your phone and dial 811 to South Dakota one call. This service is free. All your underground utility lines get marked. This way you know if you can safely dig a hole there to plant the tree. It is also the law.

Step 3 – Soil Sample

Get a shovel and take a soil sample in for testing. This is probably the most overlooked yet MOST IMPORTANT step in planting a tree. Knowing what soil you have, its nutrient levels, pH, percent organic matter, and level of compaction will help you decide what trees you can and cannot plant. Our soils in Sioux Falls and eastern South Dakota are not the most conducive for all the trees that are sold in the area or that can survive our winters. You will want a tree that can handle wet sites if the soil is saturated or you find water while taking the soil sample. If the soil is very compacted, you will be limited to trees that can handle harsh sites. Knowing your soil will give you an idea what will fair the best in the site and last the longest, versus struggling or dying early.

Step 4 – Percolation test

With that hole you dug for the soil test, make it a big bigger and dump enough water in the hole to fill it up. Time how long it takes for the water to drain out of the hole completely. If there is still standing water in the hole after a day, you are going to have to consider doing some soil de-compaction within your landscape for water to drain better, or find a different spot to plant your tree. how long it takes for the water to drain will help narrow down the list of trees you can plant there. This is called a percolation test.

Step 5 – Choose a tree

Now you can take your soil test information, the results of your percolation test, the size of the space for the tree to grow, and the features you want to get out of your tree (size, color, flowers, bark, etc.) and take that to a nursery to have them help you pick out the best tree to fit the site you have. The example I gave at the beginning can be equated to buying all the furniture for your house before you even know the floor plan. Planting a tree without knowing what soil you have rarely works out well. Soils are highly variable throughout the Sioux Falls area and can even vary within yards.

Step 6 – Buy a great tree

Buy a high quality tree from a nursery or garden canter that specializes in selling trees. Stay away from those places that also sell diapers, lumber, or anything else that isn’t plant related. You get what you pay for in a tree. If you buy a bargain bin tree, your likely going to get the bargain bin results.

Step 7 – Dig the best hole

Dig a high quality hole. You only have to do it once, so do a great job at it. The hole should be wide (at least 2 times the width of the root ball), and no deeper than from the first root to the bottom of the root ball or pot. The hole should look like a big saucer dish. Check the top of the root ball to make sure there isn’t excess soil covering where the trunk flares out. The first root should be no more than 1 inch under the soil. If there is excess, carefully scrape it off making sure not to damage the bark.

Step 8 – Plant the tree

Put the tree in the hole and backfill in with the same soil as you dug out. If you feel like soil amendments are necessary, add new soil or compost to the top of the hole. DO NOT mix it in. Also, DO NOT FERTILIZE!!

Step 9 – Water the tree

Water the tree in thoroughly, being careful not to oversaturate the hole. Knowing your percolation test results will give you an idea of how much water the hole can take.

Step 10 – Stake it (if necessary)

Loosely stake the tree (they have never gotten up and ran away on me yet). You want it to be able to sway in the wind a little. Remove the staking after a few months to one year.

Step 11 – Mulch!

Add 2-4 inches of shredded hardwood mulch over the planting area (size of the hole you dug). Lightly water that down so it is less apt to blow away.

Step 12 – Watering plan

Water the tree roughly once a week (again this will depend on your percolation test results) depending on how well your soil drains water. You want the soil to be moist. Not sloppy wet or squishy, yet certainly never dry to the touch. Consistent watering should last throughout the first growing season and through the month of October in South Dakota.


That may seem like a lot of steps. But if you do it correctly and with a high quality tree, the chances of having to do it over again in your lifetime is very small. Plus, the tree will be well suited to your soil site so it will be healthier, grow faster, and likely live longer than if you had just gone with the impulse buy. You can learn more or ask questions by giving me a call, 605.759.6020 or sending me an email sam@aspenarbo.com

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