Front Yard Makeover — Native Plant Edition: 9 Steps to Planting a Tree

Vine Maple Planted

The focal point for our small front yard will be our Vine Maple (Acer circinatum). I wanted a small deciduous native tree; that way we get summer shade and winter light. Vine maples top out about 20 feet tall and about 15 feet wide. (Depending on what source you check.) They have pretty little red and white flowers in the spring and gorgeous fall foliage. 🍁🍂 They are great for local fauna too: pollinators appreciate the flowers, they host Brown Tissue and Polyphemus moths, and birds, squirrels, and chipmunks all like eating their seeds. More about Vine Maples at EMSWCD.

The Tree Planting (slightly nebulous) Rules of Thumb

  • Plant high and tight.
  • Hole should be just deep enough, and twice as wide as the roots.
  • Native soil only.
  • Top dress with any amendments or mulch, neither of which should touch the trunk.

Steps for Planting a Tree to Give it the Best Odds

  1. Remove Potting Soil: Remove tree from the pot and put in a bucket with water covering the soil to soak.
  2. Dig the hole: For a young tree like mine, about 14 inches deep was good. Then I went about three feet wide. I then poked the sides of the hole with a digging fork, to avoid making a clay pot.
  3. Root Work: Pull the tree out and gently work the soil from the roots. This may require some time and patience. Prune any long roots that want to circle or bend with clean and sharp by-pass shears. Roots should radiate away from the trunk of the tree like the light beams we all drew on our sun pictures when we were little. Circling roots will eventually girdle the trunk and strangle the tree. Vine maples and many other trees will respond to root pruning by branching and creating a more fibrous and vigorous roots system. If you are unsure, research your tree species to see if it tolerates root disturbance, or avoid the hassle and get a bare root tree. (These only want for a soak and they are good to go.) Since we’re fall/winter planting they will have months to establish their root system before spring demands growth. So have faith that being somewhat savage with bound up roots is the right thing to do. (I know it’s hard!)
  4. Create a small mountain in the center of the hole and place your tree to ensure that the crown is at, or slightly above, the soil line. This is where gas exchange happens, so it is crucial not to plant your tree too deep.
  5. Get a helper to hold your tree as you arrange the roots to radiate away from the trunk. 
  6. Back fill your hole with the displaced soil and lightly tamp to remove any big air pockets. (I mixed in a little organic fertilizer into the backfill soil to give our tree a boost.)
  7. Water in to settle the soil and roots.
  8. Top dress with any amendments you think might benefit your tree, e.g. compost or conifer mulch. Ensure that the mulch material does not touch the trunk of the tree, to prevent stem rot and to make sure the crown can breathe. 
  9. Admire your work, and send your new little tree lots of love. 💚🌳

Do I Really Have to Remove the Potting Soil?

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


Front Yard Native Plant Makeover Article Series

  1. Retaining Wall Complete 
  2. Digging for Me, Lots of Rain Garden Resources for You
  3. Moving Mountains of Mulch 
  4. Nine Steps to Planting A Tree (Vine Maple)
  5. How to Plant Perennials so They Can Thrive

2 responses to “Front Yard Makeover — Native Plant Edition: 9 Steps to Planting a Tree”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: