I’m by no stretch of the imagination a professional gardener or a “how to plant a tree” zen master, but you could definitely say that I was born with green fingers. There’s something about the sun, dirt, greenery and growth that tickles my fingertips. But I digress!

Today was arbor day here in sunny Cape Town, and what a peach of a day it was. Arbor day of course means it’s time to plant trees (you did plant a tree today right?). It also meant that our local garden centre was offering a free tree sapling when you purchased a bag of compost from them. Well sweet deal! I gathered some “friends” and managed to score 4 trees and save a whole lot of money at the same time. Shhh, let’s keep that our secret 😉

Naturally, these trees had to be planted, and planted they were! It’s not the first time I’ve planted a tree, but it’s the first time I planted a tree and actually researched the correct way how to plant a tree. And so, I now get to share what I learned so that you can successfully plant a tree too. This is my guide to planting trees (mostly so that next year I can look this post up and plant more trees the correct way).

Step 1: Pick the right tree to plant

So, to start off with, you need to pick a tree that suits your requirements. A good question to ask is why are you planting the tree? There are multiple different reasons for planting a tree from aesthetics, to attracting bird life, privacy and more. What’s yours?

You should also think about whether you want an evergreen tree, a fast or slow growth tree, the type of soil you’ll be planting the tree in (is it sandy or more like clay?).

Once you’ve identified the why, now comes the hard part. You need to research the different types of trees that fit your requirements. Unfortunately, I can’t do this for you. There are over 60000 different species of trees on earth and depending on where you’re reading this from, and your “why” as we talked about above, you’re going to have to put in the hard yards (i.e. Google it) and figure out what tree to plant.

Personally, I wanted to plant a row of trees in front on my property’s perimeter wall. I wanted it to look good all year round, so evergreen and tall, and it needed to be a medium to fast grower, especially because I am planting them from saplings! The soil outside my house is quite sandy and the tree needed to be ok with this kind of soil. One last requirement was a tree with a non-invasive root system. The row of trees would be planted outside amongst fibre tunneling and street light cables.

I went for Syzygium Guineese trees, also known as a Water Pear.

Oh and don’t forget when actually purchasing the tree to look for:

  • No signs of disease or critters on the tree and leaves
  • Strong and sturdy trunk and developed lower branches
Preparing to plant a tree
Even Grishko is chuffed with our loot from the garden centre

Step 2: Get the right tools

Ahh yes, as they say, don’t take a knife to a gun fight. Having the right garden tools to plant your tree is essential. Brush over this section at your own peril and don’t blame me sore backs, nasty cuts and your better half angry at you for dropping F-bombs – you’re the one sleeping in the shed tonight, not me.

The good news is that you don’t need many tools to plant a tree. I’ll make this easy for you and give you a list of the tools you’ll need:

  • Spade/Shovel
  • Scissors
  • Boots
  • Gloves

Picking the right spade/shovel

You need to get the RIGHT shovel/spade. Straight up the most important thing you’ll need is a shovel. Sounds simple right? Well it mostly is, but depending on the type of soil you are planning to dig up, you should have the right shovel or spade.

The short and sweet version of selecting the right shovel is, if you’re digging to soft dirt you most likely will want a pointed tip shovel. There won’t really be a need to a step ledge or even a D grip at the end of the shovel.

If your ground is hard however, you’ll want to go for a more heavy duty spade with a step ledge and D grip. I also prefer a square sharp end to my spades. The combination of these features will allow you to easily sink the spade in to the ground using your boot and D grip to get the spade nice and deep.

I really should not be wearing those flip-flops

Scissors, boots and gloves

Sharp scissors will allow you to easily cut open the plastic pot or bag that your tree is in (be careful not to cut the roots!). Boots will save your feet from nasty gashes – trust me on this one, I tried planting my trees with flip-flops today and it did not end well for the sole of my right foot. And then gloves will protect your hands from sharp objects and critters beneath the surface – again trust me as I didn’t take my own advice here and got a nice cut on my left hand from an old rusty tin can.

Step 3: Dig the hole and prepare the soil

Finally, on to the fun part! It’s time to dig the hole and treat the soil for healthier growth than a green salad. Time to dig. “Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to wor…” – not so fast! Before we start digging…

How large should you dig the hole?

An extremely important part of planting and growing a healthy tree is the size of the hole you dig. The general rule of thumb is:

  • 2-3 times the width or circumference of the root ball (the root ball is basically what comes out of the package when you remove it from the tree – took me a while to figure that one out, don’t ask!)
  • Then when it comes to depth, don’t dig too deep! You want the top of the root ball to be level with the ground (or even just above it). Going too deep will deprive the roots of much needed oxygen and this will stunt growth.

When planting my trees today, I messed this up a bit. I should have dug a wider hole, but hey! I live and learn. Mistakes are ok, just learn from mine 😉

Digging the actual hole

It goes without saying, avoid any underground pipes, tunnels, plumbing, utilities etc! If you’re planting outside your boundary line, like I was, it sometimes helps to get a hold of the city or fibre company and ask where their lines are laying.

Start digging! What I did, and it is generally recommended, is as you start digging, create 2 piles of dirt either side of the hole (I’ll explain this in the next section). Dig the correct width and depth and once done, move on to the next step.

How to plant a tree - digging the hole
Digging the hole for the tree

Step 4: Plant the tree and mulch the surface

Ok, now we are really talking. Let’s get this tree planted. At this point we need a few more materials:

  • Compost
  • Bone meal
  • Mulch

Got all of those? No? Seriously, go get them if you care about the growth of your tree as much as you care about chocolate.

Now, remember those two piles of dirt next to the hole you dug? Great, mix a 50:50 ratio of compost to the dirt in both piles. One part dirt, one part compost. Once that is done, take a handful of bone meal and mix in to one of the piles.

Should you use fertilizer when planting a tree?

Before we go any further, I’ve just advocated using an organic fertilizer (bone meal) when planting your trees. Is this a requirement?

Well, I’m as much a scientist as I am a professional gardener, but again I’ve done some research here! Not surprised are you?

The short of it is that yes, you should but in different types and amounts depending on the age of the tree. Here is a rough guide to fertilizing a newly planted tree.

  • Tree’s that are young (like my saplings) and newly planted should be fertilized with a slow release fertilizer (i.e. bone meal) and low nitrogen. Nitrogen can burn the roots of a sapling so be careful with fast-releasing fertilizers.
  • When a tree is older and well on it’s way to becoming a “three-nager”, you can up the rate of fertilization. It’s actually even recommended that you do. I’ll write a post in the future when my trees grow bigger about fertilization at that stage.

What is bone meal?

For those of you who are curious 😉 Bone meal is simply ground up animal bones. It’s mostly used to increase phosphorus and has a NPK value of roughly 3:15:0. As you can see, it contains nitrogen as well. It’s a pure organic fertilizer and has a slow release since it needs to be decomposed by microorganisms underground.

Placing the tree and compacting

Let’s get planting. Start off with throwing some of the bone meal mixed soil at the bottom of the hole.

Carefully cut away the packaging of the tree from the root ball (as before, try not to cut the roots). Massage the tree out of the packaging and look for any circling roots. Untangle and straighten these roots carefully.

Now place the tree in the middle of the hole. Keep it upright and straight (remember to look at it from all angles) and check the height is correct. Too deep? Add some more bone meal soil mix.

Add the bone meal mix around the root ball until it’s finished and then start adding the other pile of soil. As you add the soil, compact it so that you remove any air which could dry out your roots. This will of course also stabilize the tree. Add soil until the ground is level.

You may want to now create a wall around the hole in the form of a basin to retain water. Additionally, add the mulch. Remember though, not too much mulch! And keep the mulch away from the base of the tree.

Step 5: Water the tree

Lastly, you need to get that tree wet. After first planting you want to give your tree a decent amount of water. I filled up a large bucket and gave each tree a bucket of water.

Congratulations! You now have a planted tree that should show strong and healthy growth!

Watering the tree
Watering one of the newly planted trees

Step 6: Maintain the tree to encourage growth

The fun doesn’t stop here. Maintaining the tree and watching it grow is very rewarding. For the most part, maintenance really comes down to watering it correctly.

The amount of water your tree will need depends on your location and weather. In hot, sunny and dry climates, you’re going to need to water your tree more often.

Spend a couple of weeks observing the tree and its water needs. Adjust based on climate and rainfall and always make sure you’re giving it the water it needs.

Again, as the trees I planted today grow and I learn to maintain them, I’ll write more about the process. So keep your eyes out for those posts.

The world needs more trees, so keep on planting!

Row of newly planted trees
Grow young saplings, grow

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