10 Steps to Plant a New Tree and Shrubs

Plant a tree

Fall is a great time to plant trees and shrubs around your home. By planting in the cooler weather, you're allowing the plants to more easily establish the root growth they will need during the spring growing season and the hot, dry summer. It will also allow the plants to recover from the inevitable stress they experience during transplanting. 


Planting a new tree is an investment that can last a lifetime. Position the tree carefully since it will be in place for years. When planting a tree, know its maximum height and spread, information that's usually on the label. Plant it far enough away from houses, outbuildings, power lines, and other permanent structures so that even when mature, the tree won't touch them. Be sure to plant your new tree far enough away from other trees so that it won't grow leaning away from the others, trying to get maximum light.


For tips and helpful information on how to properly fertilize your lawn, visit our Feeding Your Lawn and Overseeding Your Lawn project guides.




Step 1: Things to consider

Here are some things to consider before selecting which trees and shrubs to purchase:


  • Will the shrubs or trees I have chosen flower?
  • Do they bear fruit or berries?
  • Will they attract birds or butterflies?
  • Are they purely ornamental or will they drop fruit on the ground?
  • Will this shrub or tree keep its leaves all winter?

Step 2: Tree planting preparation

When selecting the location for your tree, make note of the sun exposure for the area throughout the day. You should also consider the plants, shrubs or trees surrounding the location and try to envision the maximum canopy and height the new tree will eventually reach.


Will it brush up against your house? Are there overhead obstructions such as wires or eaves? What current plants and shrubs will be cast in shade once the tree reaches full height? These are all questions you should ask yourself before heading off to The Home Depot Garden Center. There you will find labeling on the plants and trees indicating their sun needs and expected size at maturity.


This will help you avoid the need to retransplant the tree later because it has outgrown it's space.


Step 3: Location selection

Once you have selected a tree, it’s time to dig the hole. Begin by measuring the tree’s root ball. A common mistake made while planting a tree is to dig the hole too deep and not wide enough.


The hole should be dug at least three times the diameter of the root ball of the tree and no deeper than its root ball. This large diameter of loosened soil will allow the roots to spread and grow more easily.


It’s best to place the soil on a tarp or in a wheelbarrow to avoid killing any surrounding grass and to make back filling the hole easier.


Step 4: Dig the hole

If you’re digging in soil with a high clay content, check the walls and base for glazing. This glazing will form a barrier that blocks water from seeping in. It can also make it more difficult for the roots to spread and grow into the surrounding native soil. Use a gardening tool such as a fork to scratch a few inches deep and break it up.


Dig a slightly deeper ring around the outer edges of the hole, leaving a higher ridge of compacted soil in the center. This will allow the root ball to rest on a pedestal of sorts and keep water from pooling at the base of the root ball.


You want the root ball moist but not soaking in water as this could lead to root rot.


Step 5: Prepare the tree

If the tree you selected comes in a bucket, you’ll need to remove it and gently loosen the root ball with a shovel or by hand. The roots can become pot-bound and will continue to grow in a circular pattern if they aren’t loosened first.


If your tree comes in a burlap wrap, remove any string or twine that may be present. Then cut away the burlap surrounding the roots. If it’s natural burlap, it can be peeled back from the root ball and remain. If it’s a synthetic or plastic burlap it must be removed entirely.


Step 6: Plant the tree

Trees should always be lifted by the root ball, never by the trunk. Lower the tree into the hole and place it on top of the raised center section. Lay the handle of your shovel across the hole to check that the crown of the root ball is level with the surrounding ground.


If the root ball is below the surrounding ground, remove the tree and add more soil. If it’s too high, remove more soil from the hole. It’s best in most regions to not amend the soil. Allow the root system to adjust to the native soil around it and spread.


If your soil is sandy and fast draining, add some peat moss to the excavated soil. Use that mix of native soil and peat to backfill the hole. The peat will act as a sponge and absorb water, keeping it at the level of the root structure.


Step 7: Backfill the hole

Backfill the hole just to the height of the ball or slightly lower to allow for settling. Don’t mound the dirt over the ball and up the trunk, it will prevent air from reaching the roots.


Be careful not to compress the soil too much or it will prevent water from reaching the deeper parts of the root ball. Mound dirt around the tree to form a moat that will help collect water.


Spread two inches of bark or wood chip mulch around the area to help retain water and control weeds. It’s very important that no mulch be touching the trunk of your new tree. Clear mulch back away from the base of the trunk. This will allow enough clear surface area for water, air and light to penetrate the soil.


Step 8: Water and maintain the tree

It’s critical in the early development of the root system to keep the soil moist. Newly planted trees should be watered at the time of planting and you should water it at least once per week during its first growing season. Water it more often during the height of summer as rainfall dictates.


Avoid over watering the tree because it will reduce the oxygen flow to the root system. It’s best to give the tree deep soakings rather than frequent, light waterings. Getting the moisture down deep in the root system will encourage deep root growth.


Soaker hoses work well for deep watering. They release small amounts of water and can be left on for several hours.


Step 9: Planting shrubs

As with tree planting, you should make note of the sun exposure for your planned area. Also note the distance to any surrounding shrubs and flowers. This way, you won’t plant a shrub that will soon crowd out those around it or struggle due to too much or too little sun.


The hole should be dug as deep as the root ball and two or three times as wide. If the roots of the shrub have become pot-bound, loosen the root ball by hand or with a shovel. This will encourage the feeder roots to grow beyond the root ball and help establish the plant sooner.


After digging the hole, place the shrub and again check that the base of the trunk is even with the surrounding ground. Create a moat of soil around the drip line of the plant to allow water to collect around the shrub. The drip line is the distance to the outermost branches. Spread two inches of mulch or pine straw around the shrub, but away from the base of the trunk.


Step 10: Maintaining shrubs

Once planted, give the shrub a long, generous soaking. Repeat the deep watering two or three times per week until the shrub is established.


To help relieve the stress of the transplant, you can apply a plant starter solution to both shrubs and trees immediately after planting. This will help relax the roots and promote growth. Read the product directions for proper application instructions.