Tree Service: A Guide to Tree Care, Planting, Trimming and More

By Derek Lacey


Your lawn looks great. You’ve got the bed of green grass. You’ve got the shrubs and flowers. But it’s missing something.

What you need is a tree.

A majestic maple or oak that could one day hold a tree house or a tire swing. Maybe a fruit tree that will be the secret ingredient in your famous pie, or a flowering native to make your landscape really pop. You may just need a windbreak or a leafy tree to block out the view of your neighbors house and provide some shade.

Whatever the need trees can bring a lot to your landscape. But whether your goal is one signature tree or a miniforest, it takes a lot more than heading to the local garden center and picking one up.

Here is a comprehensive guide to the tree selection, planting and care process, and what to expect at each stage.


Before you plant

What will your tree do?

The first step in a tree planting is deciding what the tree will do. Is it ornamental? For fruit? Shade?

  • Ornamentals can beautify the landscape but they can be needy and labor-intensive.
  • Fruit trees can take years to start producing pie-worthy ingredients.
  • Shade trees take years before they shade.

Know Your Location’s Climate

The second step is realizing the limitations of your location. Your local climate will dictate the species of trees that can thrive in your yard, as will your soil quality and sun conditions.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the national standard. Gardeners and growers across the country use it to determine which plants will thrive in which climates across the country. It lists different growing zones from 1a and 1b to 13a and 13 b, based on the average minimum winter temperature, explains USDA.

Northern Minnesota, for instance, ranks a 2b with low winter temperatures between -40 and -45 degrees Fahrenheit. The map lists South Florida as 10b: A typical winter low there is no worse than a balmy 35-40 degrees.

To find yours, simply visit the USDA website and enter your ZIP code.

When to Plant a Tree

Most experts pick fall as the best time to dig that big hole for your new tree.

Fall planting, for most of the United States, means rainy, cooler weather. The moisture means less work for you dragging out the hose to keep the roots from drying out on your new green friend. The cooler temperatures encourage roots, not foliage to grow, and that’s what you want as it gets established.

Spring or late winter is next best for tree-planting.

In the warmest parts of the country, you can plant nearly year-round, as long as the ground isn’t frozen.

As the Purdue University Extension “Tree Installation” guide notes, there are exceptions to the general rules. Some trees, such as oak and redbud, do best when planted in the spring.

Pick Your Tree

Once you’ve found that out, you’ll need to pick a tree species that does well in your zone.

The Arbor Day Foundation provides a detailed tree guide showing which trees do well where.

Just search for a tree species and it will show the hardiness zones best for the tree, as well as its growth rate, favorable sun and soil conditions and more.

Your own home and landscape can limit which trees will thrive in your lawn, too. Power lines, sidewalks, driveways and other structures can limit the tree’s height or growth patterns.

Tree-Picking Checklist

Check these things before making your selection, says the University of Massachusetts Extension:

  • Slope.
  • Hardiness zone.
  • Soil type.
  • Soil pH.
  • Soil compaction.
  • Amount of light.
  • Drainage.
  • Available space.

With that information in hand, choose a tree species that’s a good fit for all of your specific conditions.

It won’t always be a native tree. The UMass Extension notes “introduced” or “exotic” trees may be a better fit due to the modified environments in urban or suburban areas.

There are considerations beyond location and environmental conditions, too. Consider trees with no significant pest problems. Consider noninvasive species with the right drought tolerance and extended season appeal.

Match needs for the site and choose the right plant for the right location, and your job of growing a tree becomes much easier.

How to Choose a Healthy Specimen

You’ve done the research. You’ve chosen the type of tree you want. Now it’s time to choose the actual plant that will end up in your yard.

The Penn State Extension puts it simply: “Buy healthy, robust, thriving plants.”

  • Healthy plants that are free of pests or disease will establish themselves faster. They also won’t bring any pests or diseases with them to your yard.
  • Bark should be free of defects, splits or soft areas.
  • The root ball should be big enough to support the tree.
  • The trunk should be straight and should have only one stem, or trunk, coming up from the root ball.

3 Types of Tree Saplings

When you go to choose your tree, it will be prepared in one of three ways: balled and burlapped, container-grown, or seedling. Each will require a slightly different evaluation to make sure you get a quality tree.

1. Balled and Burlapped

Ants Source: Wikimedia

These trees are grown in the ground before heading to the nursery. The root and soil balls are harvested and wrapped in burlap.

Their early days in the ground means burlapped trees started out with compact and healthy roots. You just need to look for a healthy tree.

If there are leaves on the tree, make sure they’re green and not drying out. Check the root ball to make sure it’s healthy.

Does it passes those tests? You have a good specimen on your hands.

2. Container-Grown

Ants

When looking for a container-grown tree — one that’s grown with a soil medium in a pot or plastic container — there’s one main problem to keep an eye out for: circling roots.

Pull the tree out of the container and take a look at its roots. If they’re tightly compacted, woody, and circling up hard against the edges of the container, pick a different one.

Circling roots can and should be cut away when planting, but you shouldn’t have to remove large chunks of the root mass.

3. Seedling

Ants

Seedlings are likely the easiest way to plant trees if you have the patience to wait a few years before they look like the ones from the nursery.

Used often by foresters, seedlings are the small beginnings of a tree just after it bursts from the seed.

Look out for a few key things to make sure that those small trees grow up big and strong for your lawn.

According to the World Agroforestry Center, a global forestry institute:

  • Make sure seedlings’ leaves have a healthy dark green color.
  • Check root systems; they should be free of deformities.
  • Seedlings should have a single, straight and healthy stem.

If your seedlings check those boxes, they’re ready for planting.

Planting Your Tree

This is the critical step. Research shows improper planting techniques are a major cause of tree mortality, the UMass Extension says.

The general guidelines for planting any tree, regardless of how it was grown, are:

  • Dig the hole wide, but not too deep. The advice on digging holes has changed in recent years. Previously, the advice was dig deep and then backfill so the root ball sat atop disturbed soil. Now, experts say, dig the hole wide — two times, to as much as five times as wide as the root ball. Place the roots on undisturbed soil, so your tree doesn’t sink too deep when it is watered. You’re encouraging roots to go wide, which is its natural pattern.
  • Look carefully to find the root collar, also called the trunk flare. That’s the spot at the base of the tree flares out, and the main roots emerge. It may have been buried by soil in the course of being wrapped in burlap, or being potted and repotted.
  • Set the tree in the hole with the root collar even with or slightly above the existing soil level.
  • Remove all foreign material from the root ball.
  • Gently backfill the hole with native soil. Resist the temptation to improve the soil with compost or other organics. You want the roots to reach out wide, so don’t make its little pocket of improved soil so cozy that the roots never reach beyond.
  • For similar reasons, don’t fertilize — at least not immediately. Too much fertilizer too soon may be discouraging, rather than encouraging, long-term root growth. Wait to fertilize until it resumes its pre-transplantation growth rate.
  • Mulch the planting area, but don’t pile mulch next to the trunk.
  • Water the tree, but don’t drown it.

That said, there are special considerations for each type.

Balled and Burlapped

The hole is the first step in planting a balled and burlapped tree, writes Richard Jauron, with the Iowa State University Extension.

Carefully lower the tree into the hole by grasping the rootball, Jauron says. The top of the rootball should be 2-3 inches above the top of the hole.

Make sure the trunk is straight and then start backfilling with the original soil. Don’t add compost, peat or other organic matter. Gently firm the soil with your hands as you go, making sure the trunk is straight.

Once the hole is half-full, cut and remove the twine from around the burlap. Cut away and remove the top one-third to one-half of the burlap. If there’s a wire basket, do the same with the wire.

Then fill the hole completely, placing soil up to the top of the rootball and gradually sloping down to the surrounding soil. Once planted, water it in.

Container-grown

Before you plant a container-grown tree, fix those roots.

Roots of container-grown trees begin to circle, growing around the inside of the circular container. Several years after planting, those circling roots girdle or strangle the trunk, ultimately killing the tree.

This can also happen if the tree has been planted too deep in the pot. But it’s not a difficult fix. Just cut the circling roots with a sharp utility knife.

This is less of a risk with container-grown trees, which unlike other types, still have all their roots when you buy them.

Seedlings

Planting seedlings is a bit different than transplanting a tree that’s already several years old. Thankfully, it’s also easier.

Plant seedlings as soon as possible, says the “Planting and Care of Seedlings” guide from the University of New Hampshire Extension.

Seedlings are planted with one of two methods: the hole method and the slit method.

The hole method is straightforward. Dig a hole deep enough to accommodate the root system. Place the seedling in the hole, spread out the roots as much as you can and backfill enough to cover just to the bottom of the trunk.

Planting seedlings with the slit method is more for large-quantity tree plantings.

Insert a planting bar or straight spade into the soil at an angle and push it until it’s straight up and down. Place the seedling in the hole, making sure it’s the proper depth as with the hole method. Then insert the planting bar about two inches from the seedling.

Push the soil toward the seedling so that the hole closes around its roots. Fill in the second hole by stamping with your heel and firm the soil around the seedling with your feet.

Your brand new tree is ready to grow into the perfect fit for your landscape’s missing link.

Post-Planting Tree Care

Your new tree is in the ground and promising to be the focal point of your lawn. So how do you make sure it reaches its full potential?

Planting the tree kicks off an establishment period of up to two years, explains Purdue.

Consistent watering is critical during this time for proper plant health care. If the soil gets dry and crumbly around the tree, water it.

A good rule is 5 gallons for every inch of trunk diameter measured 6 inches above the root crown.

How Much to Water New Trees Based on Trunk Size

Width of trunk (6 inches above ground) Root establishment time Gallons of water per irrigation
1 inch 1.5 years 1 - 1.15 gallons
2 inches 3 years 2 - 3 gallons
3 inches 4.5 years 3 - 4.5 gallons
4 inches 6 years 4 - 6 gallons
5 inches 7.5 years 5 - 7.5 gallons
6 inches 9 years 6-9 gallons
Source: "Watering Newly Established Trees and Shrubs," University of Minnesota Extension

Water slow enough to let it seep deeply, encouraging healthy root growth, but be careful. Overwatering can be just as bad as underwatering.

Use a soil probe to check for drainage and soil dampness.

Mulching helps. Purdue says to keep two to three inches of mulch in the area underneath the tree canopy. Keep the mulch that deep in a circle around the trunk, all the way to the edge of the farthest limbs.

While it may seem like a good idea, don’t fertilize a tree that’s still working to get established. Fertilizer may be useful later, but fertilizing a stressed tree can do more harm than good.

One big reason for this is that the tree needs to focus on root growth during establishment. Many fertilizers focus on top growth at the expense of roots, and can end up making the tree weaker in the long run.

Limiting Uninvited Guests

New trees in your lawn can also bring new pests and diseases. A wide variety of bacteria, fungi, insects and wildlife may see your new tree as a homestead or food source. Caterpillars, cicadas, beetles, aphids and worms all feed on trees, damaging both their look and health. The University of Maryland Extension offers detailed guides for dozens of tree diseases and insects.

In the case of caterpillars, early management is key.

Insecticides can be effective early. Even hand-picking caterpillars from branches can effectively combat the leaf-munching caterpillars.

Wildlife like deer, voles, squirrels and woodpeckers also damage trees. They eat foliage, make homes in branches and poke holes in the trunk.

Unfortunately, these are tough critters to deal with.

There is no silver bullet that with one application guarantees success. Instead, try a variety of strategies, and be persistent.

Exclusion, habitat modification, scare tactics and even a last resort of animal relocation are all options.

For young trees, Purdue recommends protecting trees with wraps. Plastic, expanding tree wraps can stave off deer or other furry creatures.

Common diseases like rusts and wood rots are trickier to deal with.

The Maryland Extensions recommends removing and destroying individual instances of rust spots. For cases of wood rots, a professional arborist or tree service is likely your best bet.

Basics of Tree-Pruning

Once your tree takes off, it’s going to need a haircut every now and then.

Pruning is essential for a healthy and beautiful tree.

Examine the tree every year to see if it needs pruning, the University of Tennessee says.

The first step is to remove any broken, dead or diseased limbs. Then move on to crossover branches or branches that rub together. Removing dead or damaged plant tissue keeps trees healthy and vigorous.

Removing misshapen, crowded or rubbing branches eliminates tree damage before it happens.

Pruning increases flowering and fruiting and trains plants to maintain a particular shape. It can even rejuvenate older plants, the UT guide says.

When to prune

Don’t just dive in and start cutting on a whim.

In general, the best time to prune is in late winter and early spring, when plants have plenty of stored energy and risk of freeze damage is low. The next best time is in early summer after the foliage has matured.

Late fall or early winter pruning means that wounds on the tree stay fresh until spring. But for the best results, know your tree.

Some specific trees should be pruned at different times to make sure they’re healthy and looking their best.

Flowering trees fall into two categories: those that bloom before July 1 and those that bloom after.

If the tree blooms before July, it should be pruned immediately after flowering. That’s because the flowers grow from last year’s growth. Pruning after flowering promotes new growth for next year.

The opposite is true for trees flowering after July 1. Those flowers come on new growth. Those should be pruned in late winter or early spring before growth starts.

Evergreens are easy, according to the UT guide. Since they never go dormant, they can be pruned anytime the wood isn’t frozen.

Making the cut

So it’s time for that haircut.

How you make those cuts can be just as important as when.

The cut is the key to good tree trimming, says the New Mexico State University Extension.

As a general rule, always cut back to a branch, twig or bud that’s pointed in the direction you want the branch to grow. This encourages the controlled, healthy new growth you want.

Heading, Thinning

  • Heading cuts shorten a branch or stem, UT explains. Heading cuts are made just above a bud that will grow into a new shoot.
  • Thinning cuts remove a main or side branch and, like heading cuts, promote new growth.

Three-Cut Method

Small branches can be removed with hand pruners, but a larger limb requires a more detailed approach known as the three-cut method.

  1. Make the first cut into the underside of the limb about 6 inches from the bark collar where the limb meets the tree trunk. Cut only about one-third of the way through.
  2. Make the second cut to the top of the limb several inches farther down the limb than the first cut, continuing until the branch breaks away.
  3. Make the third cut all the way through the limb closer to the trunk than the first cut. With the weight of the limb no longer bearing down on the limb, you can now make a clean stub.

Never “top” a tree, says New Mexico State. Topping is the indiscriminate cutting of limbs to shorten a tree. This results in clusters of unruly, weakly attached limbs that emerge near the cut. It shortens the trees life spans and requires continually intensive maintenance.

That simple haircut starting to sound like a daunting task? You may need a pro.

Especially if high, heavy limbs need pruning, it’s best to call in the professionals.

That's also the case if pruning interferes with power lines, heights or valuable property, New Mexico State says.

Tree removal

Sometimes, you need to go further than pruning. Trees die and can become eyesores, or worse, hazards.

You may want to cut down a tree if:

  • It is so large it could endanger people or property if it falls.
  • It’s an undesirable, nonnative species.
  • It inhibits growth of other trees or plants.
  • A large amount of rot shows near the roots.
  • Roots display heavy damage.
  • It leans more than 15 percent from vertical.

All these are potential reasons for removal.

You may not mind a dead tree in your yard, though, depending on its location.

Dead trees located in natural areas that don’t pose any dangers can be allowed to rot in place.

They provide homes and food for species of woodpeckers and other wildlife that can nest there.

But if the tree needs to come down, Maryland recommends calling in a certified arborist to evaluate the tree first.

Certain insects can weaken trees to the point where limb breakage is a major concern.

Most tree removal jobs are unsafe for the average do-it-yourselfer. So if the tree needs to come down, it’s likely better to leave it in the hands of a tree care service or arboriculture professional with years of experience.

A full-service tree care company can also help clean up after a tree comes down, getting your yard ready for a new tree or fresh sod.

Stump removal is especially difficult for the average homeowner. A professional tree service can knock it out by a process called stump grinding.

Using special equipment, the entire stump and some of the roots are ground down into mulch, freeing your yard completely of the old tree — and perhaps clearing space for the next one.

Formerly the agriculture writer for the Hendersonville Times-News, Derek Lacey’s articles have appeared in U.S. News & World Report, The Charlotte Observer, News & Observer, and The State. He has won 15 awards from the North Carolina Press Association and GateHouse Media, for pieces ranging from news features and investigative reporting to photography and multimedia projects.