7 Common Mistakes Planting Trees

In my small suburban yard, I remove dozens of seedling trees that find their way into my soil every year. The squirrels plant oak trees in my vegetable beds. Japanese maples sprout everywhere. I have suckers coming up from trees on the opposite fence line and many others of unknown origin pop up. I’m pulling, cutting, re-cutting all year, even in hostile conditions. I have to actively work to keep my backyard from becoming a forest. So when I intentionally plant a healthy young tree and it dies or fails to thrive, I tend to take it personally. Then I try to learn from it. (If you want to skip to the guide, feel free.)

Here are mistakes that I have made or have seen first hand. These have also been reiterated to me through my horticulture training. (Ah ha!💡) I have distilled this experience and training into the seven most common mistakes people make when planting trees.

  1. Not planning for the tree’s size at maturity.
    • The most common mistake is underestimating how big a tree will be at maturity. Will it be 10’-15’ tall dwarfing fruit tree, 15’ Japanese Maple, 30’ feet like a seedling apple tree, 50’ like a big leaf maple, or 200’ like a Western Red Cedar? Keeping size-at-maturity in mind will help you select the right tree for your yard as well as placing it an appropriate distance from buildings, fences, and other trees.
  2. Amending the hole. This comes from a desire to help our tree get the very best start in life. Admirable, but ultimately harmful. There are ways to improve your soil, but do not amend the hole
    • Amending the hole creates a soil horizon in which water gets trapped in or kept out of. Water moves evenly through homogeneous soil.
    • The tree’s roots also move better through homogeneous soil.  
    • After a year or so, organic matter will eventually be fully consumed by microbes and soil fauna and disappear, leaving your tree in a depression.
  3. Leaving on the bag or wire mesh. At our kids’ school, we removed a young pin oak tree to make room for a school garden. Throughout the trunk were streaks of black. We dug up the root ball and found that the heavy wire (think chain link fence) was still wrapped around the root ball. As the tree’s roots grew through and expanded, the fencing was poisoning and strangling the roots of the young tree. A burlap bag is different in that it will rot away, but still, I’d remove it, wash away any non-native soil, inspect the roots before planting.
  4. Going from pot to ground. While this is fine to do for garden vegetables, perennials need more care to ensure their root can support them for the long term.`
    • Remove Potting Material. For the same reason we don’t want to amend the hole, we need to remove the potting material. I find it easiest to soak the root ball in a bucket of water. I try to remove about 80% of the potting soil. If the tree is root-bound, accept that it may not survive, then proceed to try to save it. 
    • Remove Circling Roots. To rehab root-bound trees, begin by soaking the roots in a bucket of water for a few hours. Then work them loose as you remove the soil. We must stretch those roots out and get them radiating away from the tree as they would if a seed sprouted on the ground naturally. Circling roots will eventually strangle the tree. Trim any roots that won’t straighten, with clean and sharp bypass shears. After planting, be sure to pamper this tree with water through its first summer. 
  5. Planting too Deep.
    • Trees exchange gases at the crown. Leave the shoulders of the top most roots just above the soil line. You see this everywhere in nature. I have often heard the advice to plant at the same level as it was in the pot. I have found that the line can be too high. Potting soil is often fluffy enough that the tree will be OK, or sometimes trees are heeled into moist wood chips, but our heavy clays will smother a tree planted too deep.
    • Many trees will get stem/trunk rot if soil or mulch continually contacts the trunk. Fruit trees will likely send out more roots possibly overriding the benefit of the grafted root stock.
  6. Mulch Touching the Trunk.
    • The crown needs to breathe and it could cause stem/trunk rot.
    • Rodents, such as voles, often use mulch as cover while they girdle the bark of your tree. (Typically in winter.)
  7. Staking.
    • Providing support creates a weak tree. If you must stake a tree because of certain climate or terrain difficulties, do so for the minimum time possible. In case of high prevailing winds, permaculture guru Sep Holzer recommends placing heavy rocks on the windward side of the tree to help anchor the root system.
    • Sometimes people forget to remove them and the straps or wires girdle the tree, just as it’s starting to mature into the beautiful tree you imagined.

What mistakes have you seen?  Have you made any of these yourself? (Like me. 🙋)

Now that we’ve covered what not to do, let’s take a look at what to do to get your tree (and other perennials) off to a good start in life. 💚🌲🌳 Guide for Planting Trees & Other Perennials

One response to “7 Common Mistakes Planting Trees”

  1. […] Yes. The potting soil is vastly different from the surrounding soil and will create a soil horizon. Water doesn’t move through soil horizons until it is near the saturation point. A soil horizon, will either fill up with water or keep water out. It’s important that the soil be homogenous with the surrounding soil. Also, organic matter will rot away leaving your tree in a depression. I’ve made this mistake before. 😬 And many of these: Seven Common Mistakes Planting Trees […]


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