Green Zone

Planting a Tree – Your Guide

Planting trees is an easy and effective way to beautify and improve our environment. Trees provide shade in summer and wind protection in winter. Because a tree is such a visible part our landscape, especially in parks, care must be taken to ensure they are properly planted and maintained.  A tree is far more difficult and expensive to replace, once it has matured.  However, with the right planning, trees too can be easily maintained.

The Syracuse Parks Conservancy (SPC) has embarked upon a tree planting campaign. The City of Syracuse, Department of Parks, Recreation and Youth have asked us to plant trees throughout the city. We have a goal of 200 trees for 2010.  Our “Growing Together Tree Project” has started working on accomplishing this goal but we need your help. We are asking the public to make a donation and let us plant a tree for you. We are glad to have you join us in planting it by the way. We are also asking the public to plant trees on your property. Believe it our not, the majority of our tree canopy is not in public parks but rather on private land.

The first step in tree selection is to determine the type of tree appropriate for your area and needs.  Both climate and soil play big roles.  A palm will have tough time surviving our Syracuse winters.  It is essential that you make sure that the tree species you are planting can flourish in this climate and soil conditions. Before planting any trees or shrubs, SPC takes into account all of these conditions and the others we are listing below. We work with experts from SUNY ESF who also serve on our Board of Trustees.

Matching the tree to the park or your property is another key part of the tree selection process.  How much space does your new tree or trees need?  How big will that little sapling be in 10, 30 or 100 years?  Is an oak or a willow, both very large when fully grown, the best tree for a small area?  In a large park, on the other hand, will a single small tree or bush be lost in a vast expanse of the park?

A crucial factor to consider is how close is this tree to others, to structures, utility lines (both overhead and buried) and septic systems.  Trees spread out above and below ground. Branches overhang and root growth can cause considerable damage if a tree is poorly situated. You must always consider the planting location and drainage situation.

Trees play an important role in our climate both inside and out. For instance, evergreens, planted near the west or north sides of a home, can reduce winter heating costs by serving as windbreaks. Birds also appreciate them for shelter.

Both drainage and soil quality are issues to consider. Young trees do best when planted in good-quality, well-drained loamy soil. Heavy clays in poorly-drained sites present particular problems as many species of trees including white firs, yellowwoods, beeches, red oaks and yews will not tolerate ‘wet feet.’ In all cases, stagnant water pooling around roots can lead to ‘root rot’ caused by lack of available oxygen.  Chemical and gas spills pose additional soil concerns. In cases where soil contamination is severe, the only solution may be to scrape away the top layer and replace it with good quality topsoil at a depth associated with your planting objectives.

Types of Trees

You also need to consider the type of tree you will pick out to plant. SPC uses all three varieties depending upon the situation. We typically choose balled or burlap trees for our planting. Anyone who purchases a tree from SPC “Growing Together Tree Project” will get a balled or burlap tree. We will plant it for you if asked and do our best to ensure it survives for generations to come.

  • Balled and Burlap
    The roots of the tree and the ball of soil containing the roots are bound in burlap.
  • Container-Grown
    The plant is sold in the container in which it was grown.
  • Bare-Rooted –
    The plant is sold with the roots exposed.

When to Plant Trees

Climate plays a deciding role when determining the appropriate planting time.  Newly planted trees do best when exposed to moderate temperature and rainfall and they need time to root and acclimatize before the onset of intense heat and dryness of summer or the freezing temperatures of winter. Spring and fall are typically the best times to plant in our climate zone.

Planting and Digging

While planting each of these different types of trees we have listed above differs in some details, all trees eventually end up in a hole. But did you know that not any old hole will do. The most common mistake when planting a tree is a digging hole, which is both too deep and too narrow.  Too deep and the roots don’t have access to sufficient oxygen to ensure proper growth.  Too narrow and the root structure can’t expand sufficiently to nourish and properly anchor the tree.

As a general rule, trees should be transplanted no deeper than the soil in which they were originally grown.  The width of the hole should be at least 3 times the diameter of the root ball or container or the spread of the roots in the case of bare root trees.  This will provide the tree with enough worked earth for its root structure to establish itself.

When digging in poorly drained soil such as clay, it is important to avoid ‘glazing’.  Glazing occurs when the sides and bottom of a hole become smoothed forming a barrier, through which water has difficulty passing.  To break up the glaze, use a fork to work the bottom and drag the points along the sides of the completed hole. You can also raise the centre bottom of the hole slightly higher than the surrounding area.  This allows water to disperse, reducing the possibility of water pooling in the planting zone.

Planting Balled and Burlapped Trees

Balled and burlap trees, are best planted as soon as possible. They can be stored for some time as long as the ball is kept moist and stored in a shady area.  These trees should always be lifted by the ball, never by the trunk.  The burlap surrounding the ball of earth and roots should either be cut away completely (mandatory, in the case of synthetic or plastic burlap) or at least pulled back from the top third of the ball.  Any string or twine should also be removed.  Back-fill soil which can consist of combination’s of peat moss, composted manure, or topsoil is then placed in the hole surrounding the tree just to the height of the ball or slightly lower to allow for some settling.  Be careful not to compress the back fill soil as this may prevent water from reaching the roots and the roots from expanding beyond the ball.

Planting Container Trees

Container trees can also be stored for a brief period of time as long as the soil in the container is kept moist and the tree again stored in a shady spot.  The procedure for planting container trees is similar to what we just described.  In the case of metal or plastic containers, remove the container completely.  In the case of natural fiber containers, peal away the sides.

Once you carefully removed from the tree from the container, check the roots.  If they are tightly compressed or ‘potbound’, use your fingers or a blunt instrument  to carefully loosen the fine roots away from the tight mass and then spread the roots prior to planting.  In the case of extremely woody compacted roots, it may be necessary to use a spade to open up the bottom half of the root system.  The root system is then pulled apart or ‘butterflied’ prior to planting.  Loosening the root structure in this way is extremely important in the case of container plants.  Failure to do so may result in the roots ‘girdling’ and killing the tree. At the very least, the roots will have difficulty expanding beyond the dimensions of the original container.  To further assist this, lightly break up even the soil outside the planting zone.  This allows roots that quickly move out of the planting zone to be more resilient as they anchor into existing surrounding soil conditions.Once the tree is seated in the hole, the original soil is then back-filled into the hole to the soil level of the container.  Again, remember not to overly compress the back-filled soil especially by tramping it with your feet.

Planting Bare-Rooted Trees

Planting bare-rooted trees is a different as there is no soil surrounding the roots.  Most importantly, the time between getting the tree and planting it is a crucial issue. You need to plant the tree as soon as possible.  Always inspect the roots to ensure that they are moist and have numerous lengths of fine root hairs which indicate a healthy tree.  Care should be taken to ensure that the roots are kept moist prior to planting.  Prune broken or damaged roots but save as much of the root structure as you can.To plant, first build a cone of earth in the centre of the hole around which to splay the roots.  Make sure that when properly seated on this cone the tree is planted so that the ‘trunk flare’ is clearly visible and the ‘crown’, where the roots and top meet, is about two inches above the soil level.  This is to allow for natural settling.

Water and Mulch

Congratulations! Your tree is in the ground but that is only the beginning. Proper maintenance will ensure that your tree grows and that you enjoy it for many years to come – perhaps your lifetime. People often plant trees for the birth of a child, on a special occasion or as a memorial for a loved one who has passed on.


Newly planted trees should be watered at the time of planting. In addition, during their first season they need to be watered at least once a week in the absence of rain. Also, you should water more often during the height of the summer heat. However, care should be taken not to over-water as this may result in oxygen deprivation. If you are uncertain as to whether a tree needs watering, dig down 6-8 inches at the edge of the planting hole. If the soil at that depth feels powdery or crumbly, the tree needs water. Adequately moistened soil should form a ball when squeezed. Regular deep soakings are better than frequent light wettings. Moisture should reach a depth of 12 to 18 inches below the soil surface to encourage ideal root growth.


To conserve moisture and promote water and air penetration, the back filled soil surrounding newly-planted trees can be covered with mulch. Mulch depth should be between 3 to 4 inches. Do not, under any circumstances, cover the area surrounding the tree with plastic sheeting since air and water movement are prevented. Porous landscape fabric can be used since it freely allows water and air penetration. Whenever possible, SPC mulches our trees.

For more tips on planting please contact us. If you are interested in having a tree planted, please go to our Donations page and make a contribution to the “Growing Together Tree Project”. If you are interested in helping us plant a tree or working in the parks, please go to our Volunteer page.

We thank you for your time. Now go enjoy your tree!