Tree planting for longevity

Author: Alyssa Zearley

Tree planting starts with choosing the right tree for your site. Refer to our tree selection page for guidance.

Tree planting

  1. Dig a hole 3x as wide as the container. Make it as deep as the container in the middle, becoming gradually shallower along the edges.
  2. Remove tree from the container and remove as much potting soil as you can from the roots. Surrounding the roots with the native soil will help protect the tree from drying out and from vole damage. Remove any circling roots, cutting with snips or scissors to the point before the root begins to circle.
  3. Place the tree in the hole. The first large, branching roots should be ½ inch (and no more than 1 inch) below the ground surface. If the hole is too deep, remove the tree and add soil until the roots are in the right place.
  4. Spread out the roots so their tips are oriented opposite the trunk. Fill in with the native soil, placing chunks grass-side down and gently packing the soil to remove air gaps. Don’t mix in compost or organic amendments into the soil. This does not typically increase tree growth, and sometimes reduces it. Incorporating organic matter (like through Virginia Tech’s Soil Profile Rebuilding technique) may help very damaged soils that struggle to support plant growth, but in most cases native soil is the best backfill.
  5. Mulch the entire dug area with 3-4” of wood chips or mulch. Leave a 3” gap around the tree trunk. Replenish mulch annually.
  6. Staking small container trees is not usually necessary. If tree tips over, stake following the diagram below.
  7. Water every week for the first year, unless it rained an inch or more that week. Bigger trees need more water. A rule of thumb is to use 5 gallons for every inch of trunk diameter plus 5 gallons. A 1 inch wide trunk gets 10 gallons, a 2 inch wide trunk gets 15 gallons, and so on. Water slowly so the soil can absorb the water. Drill one or two 1/8 inch holes in the side of a 5 gallon bucket near the bottom to create a watering device. Now you can fill the buckets and walk away while the buckets slowly drain!


Protecting young trees: cages

Young trees must be protected while they get established. Tree tubes are appropriate for natural settings, but for yards a cage will result in a stronger tree. A 4’ tall cage will prevent most browse, and a 5’ cage will prevent all browse (but this fence height can be harder to find). Cages should be at least 3-4’ wide (deer will nibble at all foliage outside of the cage- a 1’ wide cage means a 1’ wide tree). Trees should be caged until they are 12’ tall and all limbs 4’ or lower have been removed. When the tree is this size, protect the trunk from deer rub with hardware cloth or a plastic mesh tree guard fitted loosely around the trunk until it grows to be 4 inches across. If the tree is in a natural/unmown area or has known rabbit and vole pressure, consider adding hardware fabric for extra protection.

Supplies needed:

  • 4’ tall, 16 gauge welded wire fencing. A 50’ long roll will make four 4’ wide cages. 14 gauge works too but is harder to bend around stakes. Green or black fence blends in better. Found at home improvement stores.
  • 3’ tall ¼ inch hardware cloth. A 50’ long roll will make four 4’ wide cages. Found online. Black vinyl hardware cloth blends in better and is less scratchy.
  • Zip ties. 4” works well
  • Scissors that you don’t mind getting dull
  • Small pack of garden staples. 6” staples are better than 4”
  • Safety glasses
  • Thick work gloves
  • Needle nose pliers with wire snips
  • Two 4’ stakes. Metal stakes are the sturdiest. Wooden ones need to be replaced after a year.
  • Measuring tape
  • Mallet or hammer


  1. Wearing thick work gloves and safety glasses, cut a 12’5” length of welded wire fence with snips.
  2. If adding hardware cloth, cut a 12’6” length of hardware cloth with scissors. Hardware cloth has jagged edges that scratch and catch on clothing, so be careful.
  3. Place the hardware cloth on top of the welded wire and shift it down so that half is hanging off the long edge (see diagram). Zip tie the two pieces together every 18 inches on the top and bottom of where the two pieces meet.
  4. Cut vertical slits in the hardware cloth every 2 feet until it reaches the welded wire (see diagram). Bend the hardware cloth pieces up.
  5. Pick up the fencing and fold it into the cage around the tree. If using hardware cloth, make sure the bent hardware cloth is on the inside and pin it down with garden staples. Seal the cage by hooking the wires on the edge of the welded wire around the edge.
  6. Snake two stakes through the welded wire on opposite sides and pound at least 1’ into the ground. Use a few garden staples to secure the cage.