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The Thing Most People Do Wrong When Planting a Tree

There is a right way to plant a tree. Here's how.

David Priest Former editor
David Priest is an award-winning writer and editor who formerly covered home security for CNET.
David Priest
2 min read
father and son planting a tree, from the point of view of the hole

This is the wrong way to plant a tree.

Getty Images

Whether you want to plant trees for environmental reasons or just to spruce up your yard, a good way to start is by researching the specific needs of the trees in mind. Some need more water, some less. Some thrive in a variety of climates, while some are more particular. Some need full sun, while others do best with a little bit of shelter.

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No matter what type of tree you're planting, however, there are two simple steps in the process that most people miss, even though they're crucial to giving your leafy friends their best shot at taking root. Spoiler alert: It all comes down to how you dig the hole. For more tips, read the right spot to put your houseplants to keep them alivehow to start a garden, and how to grow vegetables without a backyard.

How to plant a tree, the right way

When you're digging a hole to plant your tree, the temptation is to dig it in the shape of most holes: you know, a circle. The root ball is called a "ball" for a reason, after all. It all seems to make sense.

But -- and this is especially true if your soil is clay-heavy -- if you plant trees in a bowl-shaped hole, they can easily treat it like an actual bowl. Basically, their roots expand within the soft soil you use to back-fill the hole, but when they meet the harder edges of the hole, they follow the shape, circling around one another and eventually becoming root-bound.

This can stunt the tree's growth or even lead it to a premature death. (RIP to the serviceberry tree I planted in my days of ignorance.)

Instead, do two things: 

1. Dig a square-shaped hole.

2. Leave a small hill on the bottom of the hole for the root ball to rest on. The shape will guide the roots outward, thanks to the corners of the square, and downward at an angle, thanks to the slope at the bottom of the hole.

Back-fill the hole with soft soil, and thoroughly soak the whole area, so the roots get to work exploring their new environs. Then let nature take its course. If you picked the right tree for the right place -- and as long as you don't get unlucky with some pesky bacterial infection (knock on wood) -- the tree should make itself at home and make your home all the more attractive along the way.

For more gardening tips, check out my recommendations for starting a vegetable garden, for killing honeysuckle and for returning to a more natural way of life.