small measures

Small Measures: Tree Planting Basics

by Ashley

One of my most beloved childhood books was Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. A bittersweet coming of age tale about one man’s relationship with an ever-generous tree, from boyhood on through his twilight years, I was deeply enamored from the very first read (or, more aptly, from when it was first read aloud to me). Somehow, my younger self seemed to sense straightaway the significant roles trees play in the lives of humans. Sure, the book paints an anthropomorphic depiction of a tree that loves a human (which is a concept I adore), but, on a larger level, it presents a glimpse into the deeply integral role trees play in our lives.

Since today is Arbor Day, I figured there was nothing better to offer for a Small Measure than a quick lesson in tree planting basics. It’s almost easier to list what trees don’t offer us than detail what they do. They make appearances across the span of human art and literature, owing to their capacity to inspire. They help lower our blood pressure, quicken our mental acuity, and invoke a sense of calm. They aid in carbon sequestration by removing carbon dioxide from the air and replacing it with oxygen. They provide food and shelter for numerous other species. You see where this is going? Much like the tree depicted in Silverstein’s story, trees give unconditionally. Let’s give back, in turn. Happy Arbor Day! –Ashley English

I have a mini orchard planted on our property. Apples, plums, pears, cherries, peaches, and in this photo series, an American hazelnut are all included, with grand plans for many more varieties of fruits and nuts. The guidelines I follow when planting trees come from my favorite local nursery, Useful Plants. Based in the neighboring town of Black Mountain, Useful Plants describes itself as a “small, permaculture-based nursery specializing in useful, phytonutritional, food, and medicine plants well-adapted to the Southern Appalachian mountains and surrounding bioregions.” Chuck Marsh, the nurseries go-to man, is a personal friend and an absolute fount of botanical knowledge. His instructions have served me well, and I hope they aid you in your tree-planting endeavors, as well.

The Goods:
*Tree of choice (I planted an American Hazelnut here)
*Shovel, spade, or digging fork
*Organic fertilizer (if planting between February and July; otherwise wait until late winter to apply fertilizer)
-If you’re planting an acid-loving plant or tree, like blueberries, cranberries, lingonberries, azaleas, or rhododendrons, use a fertilizer specific to such plants, such as Hollytone.
-Otherwise, you the best quality organic fertilizer you can source and afford.
*Pine bark soil conditioner (such as Nature’s Helper-I use this stuff everywhere!)
*Compost (earthworm castings will work here, as will aged cow, horse, or mushroom compost)
*Mulch (you’ll need enough to cover the planting area 2 inches deep)
*Additional amendments, if desired :
-Greensand=Adds minerals and improves the texture of soil.
-Agricultural lime=If your soil needs it.
-Rock phosphate=Helpful for fruiting trees; don’t use it on blueberry, cranberry, or lingonberry bushes, though.
*Seaweed solution (optional)

1) Begin by preparing the planting area. Skim off any grass or weeds and their roots from the surface of the soil.

2) Next, use your shovel to loosen the soil you’ll be planting the tree in to the depth of the container it’s currently in. If your soil is full of heavy clay or is especially sand-riddled, make your hole at least five times as wide as the tree’s container. If your soil is loamy or silty, make the hole at least three times as wide as the container.

3) Before you remove the soil from the hole, put the amendments on top of the area you’re planting. You’ll definitely need compost and fertilizer (if planting between February-July); other possible amendment options are listed above.

5) Use your shovel, spade, or digging fork to mix the amendments in with the soil. Remove the soil/amendment mixture from the hole, setting it to the side.

6) Water the tree thoroughly in its container. Alternately, you can submerge the container in a seaweed solution. Carefully remove the tree from the container.

7) Use your hands to gently loosen the exterior exposed roots. If you see any circling roots, separate and spread them out.

8) Put the tree into the excavated hole, placing it so that its rootball is just at or slightly above the soil line.

9) Spread the soil back around the tree’s rootball, compressing it gently to hold the tree in an upright position. Place a 2-inch layer of mulch across the surface of the planting area.

10) Water the planting area thoroughly. A drenching seaweed solution is also nice, if possible.


If you have a place for doing so, consider planting a tree today, this weekend, or any time in the future. If you rent, ask your property owner if they mind you planting a tree before you grab a shovel and start digging (and clue them in to research indicating the cooling potential of one tree is roughly equal to that of ten room-size air conditioners running full-time for 20 hours a day). Otherwise, check out the National Arbor Day website for suggestions on other ways to get involved with tree conservation and education, including volunteering with local tree-planting organizations.

*Images and styling by Jen Altman.

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  • It’s great to see a post about the merits of trees! They really do provide so many benefits. However, it should be noted that the arboriculture industry discourages use of soil amendments in a planting hole because it encourages circling roots which can later girdle the tree. Utilizing only the native soil will increase the likelihood that tree roots grow out into the surrounding soil, better establishing the tree’s root system. If amendments are used, they should be mixed into a larger area than just the planting hole.

  • Getting ready to plant a fig tree myself — which my son thinks will grow fig newtons :-) — and will keep this in mind. Thanks, and Happy Arbor Day!