Planting Ornamental or Fruit Trees

Planting Guide

Irrespective of type, all trees establish more easily and effectively if planted small. Furthermore, if so planted, these trees will tend to thrive, grow larger and live longer than those that undergo the physiological shock of being moved as large specimens. Trees planed small also tend to develop a stronger root system, which is less prone to windthrow during storms. 

When choosing trees, you should always work with nature and plant trees that will naturally thrive on your site. If you have sharply draining, acidic soil, it is pointless to plant a species that requires rich, moist alkaline soil. Equally, don’t waste time planting a specimen requiring woodland shelter on a wind-blasted hilltop.


Grass and weeds should be removed from the planting site prior to planting, either by physical stripping of each pit site or spraying with a translocated herbicide. If the site is compacted, a pit wider than the spread of the tree roots and deep enough to break through the compacted pan should be dug immediately prior to planting. Pits dug in advance fill with water and thereby damage occurs to the soil structure. If soil structure is good, disturbance during planting should be minimised and a system similar to forestry ‘notch’ planting used with small trees. The only soil improvement should consist of relieving compaction and removing large stones.

No organic material should be dug in. A slow-release fertiliser may be useful in the backfill on poor soils. Large areas of planting can be improved by heaving and ripping the dry soil in late summer/early autumn with a subsoil plough or mole plough.

The excavation of large, deep ‘luxury tree pits’ and the addition of large quantities of organic material can severely damage soil structure and create drainage sumps, particularly in heavy clay soils and high rainfall areas. The result is that autumn/winter planted trees sit in a soggy mess until late spring or early summer. As a result, they die or become diseased, before they have a chance to
grow away. Such pits should not be used, although they are recommended in most traditional tree planting literature. If trees survive planting in a luxury pit they often do not form extensive roots beyond the pit. This results in an unstable tree that may well blow over in a storm 5–10 years after planting. Excessive use of manure or fertiliser around newly planted trees can also promote lush growth that is more easily storm damaged.

Planting Small to Medium-Sized Trees

Field or container-grown trees up to 6–8 feet (1.8–2.2m) tall can be successfully established without staking. Some gentle support from a cane may be appropriate in some cases. The tree should be firmly planted, about 1–2 inches (4–5 cm) below its previous level the soil or pot. If the top growth is dense and out of proportion with the roots, thin out the head to reduce wind resistance. It is generally inadvisable to cut the dominant central ‘leader’. On windy sites, it is preferable to by smaller trees and forgo the stake. If gentle support is provided in the first season post-planting, by tying to a cane, use soft materials that do not chafe. On no account use string. The plant and cane must not be rigid. Bending gently in the wind causes stronger stems and more extensive roots to develop.

Caning and Tying a Small to Medium Sized Tree

Supporting a tree with a cane








Staking a Tree

Staking a tree











Guarding Young Trees

In many situations, particularly domestic gardens, no form of guard is necessary. A plastic spiral guard should be used if rabbits are a threat. The presence of hare or deer will require a taller ’tree tube’, up to 6 feet (1.8m) tall to ward off red deer. Remember that newly planted trees may prove attractive to wild and domestic animals, therefore check boundary fences. A couple of sheep or bullocks can
cause immense damage overnight. Rabbit or deer guards should be attached immediately after planting. The following day could be late!

Rabbit Spiral                                                                  Tree Guard

Spiral Guard  Tree Guard














After Planting Care 

An area of at least 3 feet (1m) diameter should be kept weed-free for 2–3 years minimum. This can be achieved with a mulch of organic material or polythene or a mulch mat, or be kept clean with a herbicide. This allows the tree to establish and grow away without competition for water and nutrients. An application of fertiliser around the base can be beneficial, particularly in the second season after planting. If the tree base becomes weedy it should be cleared but never strimmed. Strimmers can kill or severely maim even quite mature trees. Most trees kept weed-free in this way rarely need watering beyond their first season unless on very light soil or in a very dry summer. Watering should be long and deep, it is better to water a once a week in dry spells rather than a light watering daily which will encourage shallow root growth.