Tree Planting Mistakes: Experts Reveal 8 Common Reasons New Trees Fail

Planting a tree is a long-term investment in your property, but getting it wrong can cause a lot of heartache. Avoid these common errors to ensure new trees thrive in your garden

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It’s essential to know how to plant a tree the right way to ensure it will be a beneficial landscape feature for many years to come. 

When done correctly, planting a tree is one of the most positive things you can do for your property and the environment – helping to clean the air and provide a home for wildlife.

‘It can also mean leaving a legacy for the next generation,’ says Blake Watkins, certified master arborist and operations partner at Monster Tree Service.

‘This is especially the case if you are selecting native trees and shade trees for your yard  – as opposed to short-lived flowering trees or fruit trees. You may be planting something that can live for 50-100 years, or sometimes much longer.’

However, it’s all too easy to make mistakes when planting trees. Get it wrong, and your tree will struggle to thrive and eventually die. Worse, you could plant a tree that becomes invasive or causes problems for your home.

Discover where most people go wrong with our expert guide.

1. Planting a tree in the wrong place

Choosing the right tree for your property and planting area is vital. ‘The arborist’s planting motto is “the right tree in the right place”,’ says Blake.

In the first instance, think about how the tree will relate to its immediate surroundings, and whether the location will accommodate the tree's mature height and spread.

‘Do your best to imagine what your tree will look like full-grown; it can help to walk around your neighborhood to see what the same species might look like at mature size,’ adds Blake.

‘Look above to avoid high-voltage power lines, look side to side for hardscapes that may be lifted by roots, and call 8-1-1 to help you locate underground utilities.’

It’s also essential to only plant trees that are compatible with your climate – check your USDA hardiness zone – as well as your soil type and the amount of available light.

‘You need to understand the needs of the tree you are planting. Some trees like full sun and some may prefer shade, growing beneath the canopy of other trees,’ says Kody Ketterling, landscape expert and founder of K-IT sprinkler and outdoor maintenance products.

‘Soil type is important because if it is way off then you may want to look at another type of tree. Test your soil type and find out whether it’s compatible with your preferred tree.'

You may still be able to plant a tree that isn't a perfect match for your soil type if you condition the soil and enrich it with any nutrients that it is lacking.

2. Planting too late

Tree planting season typically runs from late fall to mid spring, but this will be influenced by your local climate. In some areas, freezing temperatures in winter will make tree planting difficult.

‘If you have a green thumb you can get away with planting at almost any time of year,’ says Blake. ‘However, summer heat can stress or kill newly planted trees. Giving your tree as much time in the ground before the heat is a huge help.

There are some trees that can be successfully planted in summer, but for most trees, wait until fall or early spring.

3. Digging the hole too deep

Planting a tree to the correct depth is so important, as roots need to be completely underground and the trunk needs to be dry above ground. 

‘It sounds easy, but planting too deep is a very common reason why many trees die,’ says Blake. ‘The “root flair” or “root crown” is where the structural roots attach to the trunk. This should be 1-2” above ground.

‘Take a hard look for this point in the tree that you purchase and realize that there can commonly be under 3” or more of potting soil in the container. 

‘‘When it’s time to plant it can be all too easy to dig your hole too deep, but then after planting your new tree may slowly sink. The best planting hole is 1x the depth of your root ball and 2x wider.’

4. Not fertilizing the planting hole

Don’t forget to fertilize the planting hole before you plant your tree, as otherwise your sapling will be missing out on essential nutrients.

‘Adding nutrients to the hole before planting the tree helps with food for the root system when the roots start to move and grow away from the original planting,’ says Kody.

Dig in some compost or well-rotted manure to get your tree off to the best possible start. This will also help you to break up any hard clumps of soil, and remove rocks.

5. Ignoring circling roots

‘When trees grow in nursery containers, the roots often hit the sides of the container and start to circle around. As a tree grows larger, these roots can cause instability or even what arborists call “girdling”, when roots strangle the trunk as both continue to grow,’ explains Blake.

He recommends shaking some soil off the roots before planting, to see where they are growing. 

‘Do your best to untangle them and even cut them out of the cylinder shape if necessary. Root pruning can seem really scary, but young trees are tougher than you might think,’ he says.

‘Tough, fast-growing trees will benefit from an aggressive approach here while more delicate, shade loving trees should be handled with care.’

6. Under watering your tree

‘I have been around the tree business for years, and the number one mistake I have found is that people don't water trees enough,’ says Kody. 

‘When planting the tree, water deeply to saturate the tree and the surrounding area. I also recommend a water stake, which will keep the soil saturated for proper growth.’

However, in the drive to water your tree, don’t over do it. ‘Too much water and you will drown the tree and it will become water logged and rot,’ adds Kody.

To work out how much to water your tree, Blake Watkins has this simple advice:

‘When you are starting out, water roughly the same volume as your original planting container, once per week for the first 2-3 years,’ he says. ‘If you are installing irrigation, make sure you are not getting spray onto the trunk.’

Gene Caballero, co-founder of GreenPal, also recommends mulching your new tree to help it retain moisture. 'A 2-3 inch layer of mulch around the tree's base, while keeping it away from the trunk, is beneficial for moisture retention and soil temperature regulation,' he says.

'However, improper mulching, like piling mulch directly against the tree trunk, can cause rot and attract pests.'

7. Not staking trees that need support

Not all trees require staking. A tree with a rootball is usually bottom-heavy enough to stand firm. However, a bare root tree may benefit from staking – especially if it is tall.

Staking a tree after planting is also recommended in high-wind areas, or when the soil is shallow and poor.

'Support for young or tall trees is often neglected. In windy areas, stakes and ties can provide necessary support in the initial years but should allow for some natural movement,' says Gene.

8. Pruning too soon

‘Don't prune a tree as soon as it is planted,’ says Kody. ‘Make sure that it gets established for the season before you carry out pruning work.’

After this stage, structural pruning can be beneficial to help promote proper trunk development.

‘However, when planting, if a branch is broken or there is a sucker branch growing from the trunk, then I recommend cutting them off or out of the tree; don't try to feed that branch or sucker,’ adds Kody.

Melanie Griffiths
Senior Editor

Melanie has worked in homes and gardens media for two decades. Having previously served as Editor on Period Living magazine, and worked on Homes & Gardens, Gardening Etc, Real Homes, and Homebuilding & Renovating, she is now focusing on her passion for gardening as a Senior Editor at Gardening Know How.

Melanie has spent the last few years transforming her own garden, and is also a keen home grower, having experimented with pretty much every type of vegetable at some point.

In her spare time, she loves to explore inspiring gardens and historic properties.