For those who are inexperienced when it comes to trees, planting them can be trepidatious at best; frustrating and unfruitful at worst. However with some care, knowledge, and teamwork, tree planting can be a very rewarding experience.
Before you dig, call Colorado Springs Utilities at 8-1-1 and ask them for a “locate” on your property. This is a free service they provide to mitigate your shovel hitting any important underground utilities.
The diameter of the hole you dig for your tree should be larger than the tree’s root ball by two or three times. Dig the hole with gradually sloping walls, with the bottom of the hole being at a depth equal tthe height of the root ball. When digging, make sure that at the depth the tree will be planted, the root crown will not be buried. The root crown (usually identified by a swelling of the trunk at the base of the tree just above where the shallowest roots begin) should be at or just above the grade of the soil.
Once your hole is the proper width and depth, place your tree in the hole and make sure it is oriented in the fashion you desire. If the tree is bare-rooted, the bottom of your hole should have a cone shaped mound on which to arrange the roots radiating outward from the trunk. If containerized, gently cut the plastic pot open whilst the tree is in the hole and run your fingers vertically along the root ball to free the ends of the roots. If the tree is rootbound (a condition in which the roots are so copious that they have become densely overgrown, taking on the shape of the container), you can take a utility knife and run it vertically the length of the rootball; cutting through the outer layer of roots. This will help prevent the roots from growing in a circular habit and thus girdling the tree and/or other roots. If you are planting a larger balled and burlapped tree, teamwork is of great importance. When you have the tree in or adjacent to the planting hole, remove the wire cage and burlap. Some people recommend leaving just the bottom portion of the burlap on or some of the cage for easier planting, but this can still cause complications with the roots. Remove all burlap, twine and wiring if possible. If you are transplanting a tree (digging it up yourself) keep in mind that the most important roots for the tree’s survival are the fine “feeder” roots. Prioritize these over the thicker roots as you dig, and get as big a root ball as you can manage. If you cut through thicker roots, make sure you make a clean cut so that it will heal more easily.
The soil should NOT be drastically amended. It is recommended that the soil with which you backfill the hole should not consist of more than approximately 25% foreign matter. This can cause complications for future root growth. Backfill the rootball slowly, taking care that there are no air pockets which can cause root dieback. Many planters like to give the rootball a good soaking when it is about two thirds of the way backfilled. Once the tree is completely backfilled firmly press the soil down for stability of the tree but do not compact the dirt too much. Construct a berm around the tree, just outside of the outer edge of the dripline (this is the circumference around a tree that you would make if you were to draw a vertical line from the outermost branch tips and drew a horizontal circle around the tree); or at the outer edge of the rootball, whichever is wider. This will catch and hold water where the tree needs it most.
If it is a larger tree, stakes are recommended due to the high winds we sometimes get here in Colorado Springs. The stakes and wire/twine should be tight enough to keep the tree vertical, but not so tight that there is no lateral movement possible. Where the line connects to the tree, protect the bark with a piece of cut water hose or a cloth strap. Trees should not be staked for much longer than one to one and a half growing seasons; this can adversely affect the tree’s long term stability. During the time the tree is staked do not water it right at the trunk. Water it just out from the dripline. This encourages outward growth of the roots, enhancing the tree’s stability. If someone were to plant a tree and stake it; then water it at the base of the trunk and remove the stakes in a year, the tree would have a good chance of falling over from high winds. In addition, if stakes are left too long, a tree will depend on those stakes for stability rather than develop strong anchoring roots.
Finally, add mulch around your tree. It helps retain moisture which is invaluable here in our (sometimes) drought-prone area; and it also enriches the soil as it decomposes (I recommend laying no weed-preventing fabric between soil and mulch). A mulch layer of 3”-4” is recommended, and make sure you keep the layer of mulch at least 6” away from the base of the tree trunk to avoid possible infection from the trunk being constantly damp. If planted and cared for properly, your tree will be a beautiful legacy enjoyed for generations.