How to plant a tree

Tony Kirkham, head of arboretum, gardens and horticulture services at Kew is responsible for the collection of 14,000 trees. Here he shares how to plant and care for trees

Tree planting is both an art and a science. It’s about giving those precious young tree specimens the best possible start in life. Investing some time and resources to get planting trees right is well worthwhile.

The planting season for trees normally starts in October and runs through to April. Traditionally trees were usually planted bare-root, but with the advent of new technology in growing nursery stock, and the increasing availability of container-grown trees, there is now no restriction on when a tree can be planted, providing sound, post-planting maintenance can be given when needed.

At Kew we have moved the main planting season from spring to autumn. In recent years the spring weather has tended to be much drier and this has been a challenge to newly planted stock, requiring more irrigation. In contrast the soils in autumn are still warm and moist, and this encourages the tree to make a quick start, producing fresh new roots in preparation for rapid spring growth.

It’s important that you choose good, healthy nursery stock from a reputable nursery. Don’t rely on what the tree looks like above ground, but if possible check out the root system. If the tree is growing in a container, make sure the roots are fresh, not pot-bound.

Over recent years we have developed the perfect tree pit, which is shallow but wide, square not round, and made up of the soil excavated with no additional compost added. Most trees are staked when there is no need to, or over-staked with inappropriate materials. Planting depth is critical: probably the single most common reason for the loss of a young tree is that they are planted too deeply, with the soil level above the ‘nursery line’ or ‘root collar’.

There’s a Chinese proverb that says ‘The best time to plant a tree was 50 years ago; the next best time is today’. Use these simple steps to successful tree planting, adapt them to your situation and success will follow, giving you lots of satisfaction.

Having the right tools for the job, especially a good fork and spade, makes tree planting much easier.

Visit Gardens Illustrated to view how to plant the following trees.

  • Whip (young and slender tree)
  • Bare-root tree planting
  • Container-grown