Planting a Tree or a Shrub

Ilona Erwin

The transitional seasons of spring and fall are prime planting time in temperate regions such as our Midwest. In Ohio, I like the autumn season better for planting trees. Most can be planted safely at this time remembering that notable exceptions such as the magnolias need to be planted in the spring.

When garden designers mention “the bones of the garden” some of the structure they refer to are the trees and, secondarily, the shrubs that give form to a landscape. Once you have decided where you want to plant and what you want to plant, here is a how-to guide with a few reasons why to plant a tree.

Reasons to plant a tree + Plant on a slope + Cold Climate info:

Good Reasons to Plant a Tree

Notice I use the word “future” a lot when talking about planting trees. Trees are one of the most long living and terrain impacting components of your garden landscape.

Most of them should outlive you, some of them will not become mature until long into your children’s lives. They shade and shelter, their roots spread wide, they divert wind and snowfall patterns, and their leafy cover can create a microclimate difference in your yard.

Tree roots can also uplift concrete walks, invade drains- but this can be avoided through proper situation at planting time, routing walkways, etc. around the tree’s given root area and making the right choice of species for your home.

Surface rooting maples are more likely to interfere with growing grass and lifting walks, willows are more likely to invade drains. But both are beautiful trees and in many situations provide benefits, not problems.

In the Northern hemisphere:
* The northern side of a house often has a microclimate that’s shady and less exposed to hot, dry winds.
* The southern and western sides of a house are generally hotter and more exposed to the elements.
* Areas under thick trees are shaded, and as a consequence moisture in the soil is retained better throughout the year.


Selecting a Tree

Prairiefire crabapple flowers

Prairiefire Crabapple in full bloom

In making a choice of which tree to plant, the first consideration, I think, is whether it is hardy for your climate.

This matters more because trees are on a longer timeframe: they take a long time to grow, and aren’t so easily replaced. If a perennial doesn’t make it through your winter, you can replant it, or decide on something else that will fill its lace in a matter of a few seasons, but a tree’s loss is more expensive in both time and money, not mentioning your hopes and plans!

Local arboretums are very helpful in selecting trees and shrubs. They provide a living information center to observe how a tree grows and looks in your particular region.

Advice well-taken is the “just-right” size of tree: medium, not too small, not too tall. The reason for this is the balance between the size of the roots and top of the tree.

Check the leaves, if in leaf. Are they healthy and green, or stunted, yellowing, and sparse? Check for signs of insects or disease, although shopping at a reputable nursery or green house should prevent those problems. Reputable plant dealers want you to be as happy with the plant as you do, and take pride in providing top quality offerings, but it never hurts to check anyway.Try to check the roots, they should be branching out and developed sufficiently to hold the root ball together.

Look for a straight tapering trunk in a tree. Smooth undamaged bark shows health, splits, flat areas, and dull colored areas show damage. Buying two to three year old whips is a good investment, too. It is said that they catch up quickly with larger specimens. I’ve been very happy with buying smaller trees in that size.

More About Selecting a Tree
trees for autumn beauty

trees for autumn beauty

Here are ten general things to remember when planting your new tree or shrub:

  1. Check where you have underground lines. I severed my telephone lines several times when first planting evergreen trees many years ago- please don’t repeat my mistake! You can call utility protection services – in Ohio the phone number is 1-800-362-2764, as of this writing. Remove weeds, especially perennial ones from the planting area.
  2. Dig a ten dollar hole for a one dollar plant, not much deeper than the plant ball, although you might want to break up the bottom of the hole a bit if it is hard clay subsoil, but you don’t want the root ball sitting in a depression below soil level. The recommended width of the hole is 2 times the size of the root ball diameter. Just don’t be stingy with the work when you have invested in purchasing a beautiful and healthy tree or shrub. The future pleasure you take in such a plant will depend on its being happy and healthy. Nothing waters the beginning plant better than a bit of sweat from your brow. Big hole for small new planting. Many experts suggest you “plant high”, making sure the level of the transplanted tree is at or above where its soil line was originally located.
  3. Nursery plants come with several styles of root ball:
    • ball and burlapped, wire basket, and twine-tied root balls; you can leave anything that isn’t plastic. Cut and remove plastic after ball is safely in the planting hole, but keep the soil ball intact.
    • container plants, either peat containers or plastic. Remove plant from plastic containers; make sure to remove top couple of inches from peat biodegradable ones. You don’t want the moisture to wick up through it and dry out the new roots. You can also slice into the pot in a few places
  4. Before planting make sure the root ball is well-watered. Water an hour or so before planting. If you have a bare root plant, soak the roots for that amount of time before planting it in the ground. If roots are circling the plant, tease them out to encourage them to grow into the surrounding soil.
  5. Fill in around the plant with 3 shovels of the removed soil to 1 shovelfuls added organic matter such as compost or peat moss. There are different opinions on this, but having tried them… I always had best results adding some soil amendment at planting time.

    Old House Journal

  6. Water well. Try to “mud in” your new plant to ride any remaining air pockets. Since the plants, especially larger ones such as trees, suffer some shock from transplanting and their new roots need to grow, keep your new planting watered throughout the new season. In our hot summers, water every seven to ten days, then soak it well before the winter freeze. Plants lose moisture throughout the winter, so a good soak is a good measure. You might want to get a Treegator tree watering bag
    to keep the new tree optimally watered.
  7. Some experts recommend staking, but I haven’t found much benefit from it.
  8. My best success with new shrubs and trees included adding transplant fertilizer at planting time, but don’t make the mistake of using regular fertilizer. It can burn the new roots. There are root stimulator products and special transplant solutions, and I think those are good… and then there is always the old fashioned manure tea that , while not added right at planting time, you could use later. Since I like to plant trees in the fall more than in the spring, fertilizing isn’t an issue. It isn’t a good idea to fertilize trees and shrubs too late in the season- they need to harden up for their dormancy.
  9. Add a light layer of mulch to your newly planted tree.
  10. Prune off damaged or unwanted branches. Head back the tree, if wanted. Good root to top ratio means a healthier, more vigorously growing tree for the future.

Quick Instructions On Planting A Tree


Trees provide shade, windbreaks, or wind channels.
excellent PDF file, “Landscaping for Energy Efficiency”
Southern hemisphere water saving tips ~water conservation
English microclimate information ~ good info on urban winds and smog

Find out more- how to determine depth and finding the “root flare”

Tips: How to plant a tree on a slope

I have a completely flat landscape, but you might have a slope and need to plant your shrubs or trees on an incline. Just how do you do that?
Create a Terrace
Cut into the slope, and make a flat space. You may want to make a retainer of stones,blocks,or landscape timber.

Plant the tree
Situate it in the center of the flat terrace you created. Follow the directions for depth from the video (or just remember that the root flare should not be below soil level.) Tamp it in firmly.

Create a raised berm
Around the edge of your terrace and not near the root flare, or trunk, make a raised berm of soil to catch the water and keep it for the roots.

In the same way for a tree planted on the level. No volcanoes!

Follow the same advice for all new plantings: keep moist during establish time (first season), lightly mulch,but don’t crowd the trunk.

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.