Helpful hints for Arbor Day projects

Factors to consider when planting a tree or shrub

Tree planting

Many trees sold in containers or balled and burlapped (B&B) may be planted at any time (providing, of course, that the soil can be dug). Bare root trees should be planted only in early spring, when the roots are still dormant.

Check to be sure that the type of tree you want to plant is appropriate for the type of soil, drainage, and amount of light at the location. Consider the tree’s mature height and spread.

Dig the planting hole

Dig a bowl-shaped planting hole at least 50 percent wider than the root ball of the tree. Loosen or rough up the sides of the hole so roots can easily penetrate into the surrounding soil.

Find the trunk flare, where the roots spread out from the trunk of the tree. You may have to carefully remove excess soil from the top of the root ball if the trunk flare is not visible. The depth of the planting hole should allow the flare to be at or slightly above the soil line. Make sure the bottom of the hole is firm to prevent settling after planting. Roots of trees and shrubs planted too deeply will suffocate from lack of air, and the trunks are prone to rot. Trees in poorly drained soils may be planted with the trunk flare 1 to 3 inches above the ground level.

Position the tree

Check the position of the tree in the hole before removing the burlap or container. Always lift the tree by the root ball, never by the trunk. Stand back and make sure the tree is straight.

Place in the planting hole

container grown trees

Trees or shrubs in containers or pots should always be removed from the pot. Paper or fiberboard containers do not decompose fast enough for good root growth. Even if the container is said to be plantable (made of material that will decompose), you should still remove it before planting the tree so as to make it easier for the roots to spread out.

Use a utility knife to make four vertical cuts, about one inch deep, on the sides of the root ball. Cutting the roots encourages the roots to branch and spread out after planting. Set the plant into the planting hole, making sure it is at the correct depth.

Balled and burlapped (B&B) trees

Place the B&B plant into the hole by lifting it by the rootball or twine. Once the tree is in the hole, cut all strings. Either cut off the top third of the burlap or tuck it down into the hole. Make sure twine and burlap is completely removed around the trunk. Failure to do so can girdle the tree. Burlap left above the ground will wick moisture away and dry out the root ball. Trees in wire baskets should have the wire, burlap and twine removed from at least the upper third of the root ball.

Refilling the

planting hole

Fill the hole halfway with the soil that was removed. In general, do not enrich the soil with compost or peat. In extremely sandy soils, peat or compost may be added to increase water retention. Because the tree’s roots will eventually spread out much farther than the original hole, amending only the backfill will not solve the soil problems facing the tree if the soil is poor. Add water to the partially filled hole and let it soak in. Next, fill the hole the rest of the way and water again. Fertilizer is not needed at the time of planting.


Mulch helps keep the soil moist, moderates temperature, and reduces weed competition, all of which are important in root growth. Cover the soil around the newly planted tree with a 2-4 inch layer of organic mulch. Keep mulch 1-2 inches away from the tree trunk. Leaf litter, bark chips, shredded bark, pine straw, cocoa bean hulls, and compost make excellent mulch materials.


The limited root system of transplanted trees means that you will need to water at least once a week, taking rainfall into account. Be careful not to water too much. Watering less frequently but deeply to the depth of the root ball is best. Be sure to water well into the fall, as maintaining adequate moisture is absolutely essential to survival. Check the soil a couple of times a week to see if more water is needed. The soil should be moist (but not soaking wet) down to a depth of six inches or so. Keep newly transplanted trees well watered for one to two years after transplant.


Wrapping the trunks of newly planted trees can help prevent damage from winter sun and animals, like rodents and deer. Brown tree wrap paper is most commonly used. Wrap from the base of the trunk up to just below the first limb. Hardware cloth and flexible plastic sheaths help prevent animal damage. Wrapping material applied in the fall should be removed in the spring. Removing wrap is just as important as applying it in the first place.

It is not necessary to stake newly planted trees less than four inches in diameter in home landscapes. The tree flexing in the wind strengthens the trunk as it grows. Trees four inches or larger, trees in windy areas, or those at risk for vandalism or mower damage should be staked. Stakes and support wires must be removed after one year.


Trees should not be pruned when planted except to remove broken branches. Significant pruning should wait until the tree has been established for a year.

Releaf is a coalition of organizations formed after the devastating storm that tore through our community in July 2003. Its purpose is to help individuals and organizations select trees that will grow well in this area and to teach them how to plant and maintain them. In this way it will REFOREST THE FOREST CITY!

Releaf members can help you with your questions and concerns. Following is a list of contacts:

City of Rockford—Todd Stuehler, 987-5570

Wild Ones Natural Landscapers—Tim Lewis, 874-3468

Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Gardens— Steven Courtney, 965-8146

Winnebago County Forest Preserve—Tom Hartley, 877-6100

University of Illinois Extension—Barb Larson, 986-4357

Rockford Park District Foundation—Elaine Harrington, 987-1670 or Ruth Miller, 987-1689

Commonwealth Edison—Ed Cunningham, 490-2618

Community Foundation of Northern Illinois—Barb Nelson, 962-2110

Boy Scouts of America—Andy Murray, 397-0210, ext. 104

Tom Brooks—Explorer Posts, 397-0210, ext. 113

Neighborhood Network—Janet Hill, 963-0490

Natural Land Institute—Jerry Paulson, 964-6666

United Way of Rock River Valley—Karen Johnson, 968-5400

Rockford Park District—Mike Pauly, 987-8860.

Helpful Web sites

University of Illinois Extension— or

Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Gardens—

International Society of Arboriculture—

The Morton Arboretum—

Illinois Arborists—

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