Talking Trees with Davey Tree

The Ultimate Tree Planting Guide

September 29, 2022 The Davey Tree Expert Company Season 2 Episode 37
Talking Trees with Davey Tree
The Ultimate Tree Planting Guide
Show Notes Transcript

Nick St. Sauveur from Cortese Tree Specialists, a Davey company, talks about when to plant a tree, what trees to plant and the best practices for tree planting.  

In this episode we cover:  

  • Why should you plant this time of year? (0:44) 
  • Deciding where to plant a tree. (1:40)  
  • The importance of hiring a certified arborist. (5:20)  
  • Root pruning best practices. (6:35)  
  • What to do for a tree that’s planted too deep. (9:45)  
  • Containerized plants (11:09)  
  • What Nick prefers when planting (12:00)  
  • How much to water your trees (13:00)  
  • Clay soil best practices (14:20)  
  • Best practices for fertilization (16:00)  
  • When you should (and shouldn’t) stake your tree (16:50)  
  • When to mulch your tree and what type to use (18:40)  
  • Best practices for mulching (20:20)  
  • Nick’s favorite trees (21:25)  

To find your local Davey office, check out our find a local office page to search by zip code.  

To learn more about tree planting, read our blog, Tree Planting Guide: 3 Methods of Planting Trees. 

To learn more about what trees to plant, read our blog, Guide on How to Choose A Tree to Plant: Planning & Selecting. 

To learn more about caring for new trees, read our blog, How to Take Care of a Newly Planted Tree (5 Easy Steps).  

Connect with Davey Tree on social media:
Twitter: @DaveyTree
Facebook: @DaveyTree
Instagram: @daveytree
YouTube: The Davey Tree Expert Company
LinkedIn: The Davey Tree Expert Company

Have topics you'd like us to cover on the podcast? Email us at We want to hear from you!    


Doug Oster: Welcome to The Davey Tree Expert Company's podcast, Talking Trees. I'm your host Doug Oster. Each week our expert arborists share advice on seasonal tree care, how to make your trees thrive, arborists favorite trees, and much, much more. Tune in every Thursday to learn more because here at the Talking Trees podcast we know trees are the answer. We're joined again from our friend Nicholas St. Sauveur. He is a district manager for Cortese Tree Specialists, a Davey company. Where is that, Nick?

Nick St. Sauveur: It's here in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Doug: We're talking all about the ultimate planting guide. Why are we planting this time of the year?

Nick : Planting this time of year has a lot of benefits. Probably the most important one is trees are getting ready to go into dormancy, which any time you're going to stress out a tree, which tree planting is incredibly stressful, anytime you could do it while they're sleeping, I use that word lightly, it's going to be much better for them. Not only that, but when you enter into the wetter season of the year, it's going to help develop root growth over the course of winter, which means come spring it's going to be much better equipped to actually be able to push out growth, do a lot better for you the following year.

Doug: Yes, I love planting trees in the fall, no doubt about it. When you get to a property, we talk about this over and over again, right tree, right place, tell me a little bit about what you do when you get to a property and deciding where you're going to plant a tree. Are you giving them suggestions or are they asking for a certain tree? How does it usually work?

Nick: Generally, our clients have an area that they want a tree planted or they just removed a tree and want to bring something back to fill that void that they now have on their property. Generally, we're trying to, like I said, fill that space. We will start looking at sun exposure, how wet the soil is, just what the goals for that tree are going to be, what the client wants that tree to be able to actually do. Sometimes they're reasonable, sometimes they're not. Then, also, a lot of clients have X, Y, and Z. Sometimes that actually works for that site, sometimes it doesn't. We could steer a client in a direction for a tree that will actually suit that but also achieve those same results.

Doug: When you're looking at that spot is it just experience that you know, if you're just walking around on it you can say, "Well, this is a wet area," are there other tests you do, or do you just have a feel for looking at it this is the right place for this certain tree?

Nick: A lot of it is experience, just knowing what does well in certain site conditions. We've talked about soil testing in the past. Sometimes that's also beneficial because there are some trees that do really well in acidic environments and some that do a lot better in alkaline conditions. If you've got a highly alkaline or acidic soil, you don't want to plant something that is going to do poorly in those areas.

A really good example here in East Tennessee is pin oaks and river birches. They get a lot of iron deficiencies because the soil pH is too alkaline. It's not acidic enough for them, which means that there are certain nutrients that are tied up in the soil that just aren't available for them, and then long term, you've got problems that end up popping up. When we plant a tree we want to look at it long term. That tree is going to be there 100 years, not something that you're going to plant and then rip out 5 years down the road or 10 years down the road. Again, when I'm planting, I'm trying to plant something that's going to outlive me and the client and a very long time.

Doug: The pH is what it is, you can't change the pH for a tree that's going to be there 100 years. You might be able to change pH--

Nick: For a year maybe. [chuckles]

Nick: Yes, but not for the long term. That pH that's just how it is, right, so you have to choose the tree that wants to grow in that type of pH, right?

Nick: Correct. Yes. There is no point in trying to change the pH. You can change it temporarily, but typically it ends up just resorting right back to what it was, so it's not worth it.

Doug: Tell me why I would benefit from having somebody that knows what they're doing put my tree in.


Nick: That's a great question. Most trees, especially here in East Tennessee, the nursery stock that we end up getting in there's a lot of structural defects, not only in the crown but also in the roots. If you're just going to go out and pull a tree or buy a tree from a nursery, you don't know what you're looking for, you could have trees that are planted too deep, actually in the root ball or in the container, you could have a lot of girdling of roots.

Some of that stuff is unavoidable. Sometimes you're just going to get that and you just need to correct it at the time of planting, but planting is a lot more in-depth than just taking a tree out of a pot, digging a hole, and sticking it in the ground. There's a lot of best management practices that go into it and a lot of pruning, especially in the root system, to make sure that trees going to you live a very, very long time instead of just a year or two years or five years.

Doug: Let's start there because we've never really covered that on the podcast. I know it might be hard to explain. It would be easy to have something and show it, but talk a little bit about root pruning. In general, what are you looking for when you open that? If it's in a balled and burlapped, or if it's in a pot, you pull it out there, what do you want it to look like? If it doesn't look the way you want it to look like how do you change it?

Nick: Balled and burlapped and containerized trees are going to have their own separate set of issues that come with them. We'll start with containerized stock because that's what most people are familiar with. With a containerized stock, when you pull that out, generally, that tree has been in that pot way too long and you're going to have roots that are-- what we call girdling roots where they hit the edge of the pot and then they start to circle. If you don't take that off at the time of planting, those roots will continue to girdle through the life of the plant.

The problem with that is 10 years down the road that root that was the size of your pinky or smaller is now the size of your wrist. That is going to start cutting off circulation to the tree because that root is going to compress the tissues on the main stem and it's going to kill everything above it. How to correct that is when you take it out of that pot, rough up the root ball. When we plant we just shave off the outer portion of the root ball and cut off the bottom of it. That seems pretty drastic, but with a containerized plant you're dealing with 100% of the root system so you could be a little bit more aggressive with it than a balled and burlapped, which you're only dealing with 20% to 30% of the root system.

If you're dealing with a containerized stock and you take off 20% of the root system you're still a lot better than necessarily a balled and burlapped plant. The other thing with containerized, and this is true for balled and burlapped, is you want to dig down in that container and figure out where your root flare is, find that first major root-- Your root flare or that first major root has to be planted at grade. It cannot be planted below grade. Some people plant it above grade. I don't agree with that either. It needs to be planted at grade. You don't do that, long term you're going to have issues, and again, that tree is not going to outlive us.

Doug: Boy, that is so critical. From just doing the podcast and talking to you Nick and other people, we run over that a lot, especially planting too deep. I know you see it every day, and I see it every day too. I wonder when a tree is planted too deep and we get five years in, is there anything you guys can do to help that or not?

Nick: When you've got a tree planted too deep, it's not even necessarily that people think they're planting them too deep because-- I'm going to back up on you a little bit here. A balled and burlapped, I've seen them where they're 6 inches, 8 inches too deep in the actual root ball. When people have just planted it at grade, at the top of that root ball, they think they're good, but really, they're way too deep to begin with.

Preferably, you correct that at the time of planting. You take all that topsoil off, but if let's say, we go out to a property and their tree is starting to struggle that they planted five years ago, we could go in with an air spade, blow away all the soil around the base of it, re-expose that root flare, and try to adjust that grade a little bit to make it a lot more friendly for that tree, and try to prevent that decay that's going to inevitably overtake that tree.

Doug: Then, let me understand this, between the containerized plant and the balled and burlapped, talk about those roots again. In the balled and burlapped, what is it about that that you were saying with the roots? Like in a containerized one, you can take 14% of it away, what--

Nick: When you're dealing with a containerized plant, you've got 100% of the root system there. When you've got a tree that's balled and burlapped that was field dug, you may only be dealing with 20% to 30% of the root system. You lose 80% to 70% of that root system.

Nick: When you're dealing with your containerized stock, don't be afraid to go in there and cut off the outer portion of it. Correct any roots that are starting to girdle. You could be aggressive with them, even though it feels like you're killing your tree you just bought, but it's a lot better, a lot easier to correct that time of planting than it is 5 years down the road or 10 years down the road.

Doug: Between those two types of trees, do you prefer one over the other or is there a lot of other things to think about here?

Nick: There's a lot of other things to think about. I don't necessarily prefer one over the other. Some species are just a lot better with balled and burlapped than containerized. What's probably more important is just the aftercare that you're giving those trees instead of trying to stick them in the ground and just hoping for the best. Making sure that you've got a strict watering regime after you've planted those trees is really what's going to make those trees survive.

Doug: In your climate, how long would you be watering if we didn't get the rain needed? Until what point in the season? All winter long, is there a certain point where you stop, or?

Nick: I tell my clients, you want to water about 15 to 20 gallons a week. It doesn't need to all be in one watering. I'll typically say 20 gallons a week. You do five gallons one day. Wait 4 or 5 days, do another 5 or 10 gallons, and then that should be good for the week. If it rains or it snows, you don't need to water. A lot of issues that I see after trees I have been planting ends up coming up because people are actually overwatering, which I think we've talked about in the past.

Overwatering is, especially here in East Tennessee where we've got clay soil, when you dig a hole, if you don't dig it right, it's going to hold water no matter what, especially if you don't dig it right. If you're overwatering, those roots are just going to rot. To finish your question, typically, through the winter, through the summer, basically through that first season is you want to make sure that you're getting adequate water to those plants.

Doug: You brought up the next place I wanted to go, which was clay soil. Lots of clay soil here. Now, what I do when I'm planting a tree is if I find pure clay, I'm just trying to find another spot. I do not want to deal with clay, but I've got lots of room to find a spot. I can find a spot with average garden soil. In your situation, you might have only [crosstalk] one place for this. What happens when you run into clay? When you say digging the right hole, how do you fix that problem?

Nick: It goes back to the first conversation or how we started this conversation, was right tree, right place. Making sure that the trees that you're planting are going to be able to tolerate that clay hole. Then when you actually go to plant your tree, you want to follow best management practices. When you start digging your hole, you want that hole to be two to three times the diameter of the root ball that you're going to end up sticking in there, and you want to make sure it's only to the depth of basically where your root flare is.

If you dig too deep, and then you've got a backfill or you dig too deep and then sticking in there, it'll end up settling over time and then your tree is going to be too deep. There's not really a whole lot of fixes you can do with it outside of just digging the right hole. Make sure that soil is nice and loose around it so that tree can readily root out into this hole that it's going to have to deal with its entire life.

Doug: Some trees just aren't going to be right for that spot.

Nick: Correct.

Doug: Okay. I get it. How about fertilization? Is that something we do when it's planted or later? What's the best practice that you like to recommend?

Nick: We generally recommend-- We don't put a whole lot of soil conditioners at the time of planting. The reason for that is because we don't want to get a bunch of roots out into that hole that we dug, and then they just want to stay there, especially in clay soil, because if you make that a nutrient-rich environment, they're not going to want to go out and seek the nutrients that they need. We don't do that at the time of planting. We will get little mycorrhizae packets, mix that in with the soil to enhance root growth, but we won't start fertilizing until probably two years after a tree has been planted.

Doug: How about staking that tree so it stands up straight? Do I have to do that?

Nick: No, you do not. We do not recommend it at all.

Doug: Why do I see it all the-- I got people taking garden hoses and cutting them up, three different lines here and there.

Nick: I really do not know where that all came from of staking every single tree. If you plant a tree and it doesn't need a stake or it's not falling over, just leave it alone. Let it root out into the soil and it will stabilize itself. Sometimes, if you end up going in and removing a bunch of the soil and you take a bunch of that root ball off, sometimes it's just going to fall over. At that point, yes, you do need staking.

The problem with staking is that the tree doesn't really get a feel for the environment it's in, and it doesn't react to environmental forces. Every time that tree moves and blows in the wind, it's feeling that it's getting ready to fall over. Its reaction to that is it'll put out additional roots wherever it needs to, and also build reaction tissue in the main stem to be able to support itself.

If you put a stake on there and hold it nice and tight so it can't move, and I've actually got a client that did this, this is a great example, is everything below that stake will almost become atrophied, everything below it will get really bulbous and start creating the reaction tissue that it needs. Do not stake if you do not have to. If you do have to stake, make sure it's loose so it can still move around a little bit. Then really that stake should not be on there for more than a year.

Doug: Then how about mulching? Are we supposed to do that at time of planting?

Nick: Yes. Everything should be mulched. [chuckles] Yes, definitely mulch at the time of planting. We generally just the size of the hole that we dug, that two to three times the size of the root ball ends up getting mulch, or out to the drip line, just depending on what looks better. Yes, definitely start mulching right away at the time of planting.

Doug: What are you mulching with? Anything, bark mulch or?

Nick: Yes. Just a hardwood mulch is fine. I tell people, match the mulch to whatever type of tree you're planting. If you're planting a pine tree, it's fine to go in with pine straw. If you're planting an oak, just go in with a hardwood mulch. I tend to steer people away from dyed mulches because dyed mulches can actually leach chemicals and a bunch of garbage and nasty stuff into your soil and it could actually kill your microbes. You definitely don't want that. You want those microbes there to help increase root growth.

Doug: Do you see a lot of dyed mulch still? I see that as a dying thing, but is it something that's out there a lot, people putting different colored mulches on? You see that happen?

Nick: Yes. We see a lot of it here in East Tennessee. I don't know about other parts of the country, but definitely here in Knoxville.

Doug: Not a good thing to do.

Nick: No.

Doug: Then if you don't mind, again, I might sound like a broken record for people who listen to this, where the mulch should be in regards to the bottom of the tree.

Nick: Best management practices for mulching is 2 to 4 inches deep, nothing in contact with the root flare, and then out to the base. Just depending on what kind of soil you have, we tend to steer towards the 2 inches because of the heavy clay soil. If you have sandy soil, you can go 4 inches. Big thing is, again, nothing in contact with the base of that tree for the same reason that we talked about in regards to not planting your tree too deep. It will hold moisture up against the base. It'll start to decay and then eventually end up killing your tree. Nothing in contact.

If you want, you could feather it up just to make sure everything is covered and it looks nice, but do not do that. Do not volcano mulch. Just don't.


Doug: That's our mantra. I think we need a T-shirt that says something about volcano mulch. Hey, before I let you go, tell me a couple of your favorite trees. Now, we've already said right tree, right place, we know that, but just tell me a couple of your favorites. Something that's cool that you like and you enjoy when you can find the right spot for it to turn a client onto it.

Nick: One of my favorites, and they're a little finicky, so it's hard to find the right spot for it, but I've got a bunch of them planted in my yard, is the sourwood. Just a phenomenal tree. They really don't have many pest issues. It can be a little sensitive to drought stress, but gorgeous fall color. It's like a pinkish-red. They get late-season blooms, which is rare, especially when it comes to trees. Really good for honey bees. If anybody's heard of sourwood honey, that's the tree that it comes from. Then they have a really nice blocky bark. It almost looks like alligator skin. You've got year-round interest on those trees. They get about 30, 40 feet tall.

Doug: What is finicky about them? Just the watering?

Nick: Just the watering. They could be really sensitive to too much water or too little water. If they're not well maintained, they're going to struggle. It's an understory tree, so their being planted out in the open can be a little stressful for them.

Doug: That leads me to another question actually, because I use that term all the time and you do too. Understory, but when I used that term on Facebook the other day, somebody said, "What do you mean by understory?" It's a tree that grows underneath the bigger trees. Is there another way to explain it?

Nick: That's exactly it. If you fly over a forest, you're not going to be able to see dogwoods. You're going to see oaks and hickories and maples and that sort of thing. If you're walking through the forest, the trees that are right in front of you or that you can actually observe the foliage on are going to be your understory trees, like your dogwoods, your redbuds, some of your cherries, that sort of thing.

Doug: Seems obvious to us as tree people, but sometimes you have a term like that you use all the time and then you don't realize that some people might not get it.

Nick: That's actually another thing to consider is, if you're walking through the forest and you see a tree you just absolutely love, if it's an understory or overstory tree, that's going to determine the light conditions that it's going to want to deal with, either full sun, part sun, or full shade. You don't want to take an understory tree, stick it out in your front yard with no protection whatsoever from late afternoon sun

Dogwoods, I don't know what it is about people and dogwoods, but everybody plants their dogwoods in the middle of their front yard and they are an understory tree and they almost always have anthracnose, borers or all kinds of nasty issues and they never look as good as they should because it's an understory tree. Taking those principles that we find in nature, bringing them into your landscape, that's going to ultimately lead to great success.

Doug: Nick, I couldn't have said it better myself. That's a great way to finish up. As always, thanks for joining us here on the Talking Trees podcast. I always enjoy talking to you and always learn something new. Thanks again, Nick.

Nick: I enjoyed it, Doug.

Doug: I've been planting trees for 40 years and still Nick has information that I can use. That's pretty amazing. Tune in every Thursday to the Talking Trees podcast from the Davey Tree Expert Company. I am your host, Doug Oster. Next week we talk about Davey's innovative program partnering with professional sports teams in Cleveland to improve the tree canopy in the city. I think you'll be surprised as to how many trees have been planted. Do me a favor, subscribe to the podcast so you'll never miss an episode. As always, we like to remind you on the Talking Trees podcast, trees are the answer.


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