Neil Sperry

These tree-planting tips will help stave off frustration and disappointment

A great garden in a small space

Jake and Sharyn Schaffer's patio garden in San Luis Obispo makes the most of the small landscaping space.
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Jake and Sharyn Schaffer's patio garden in San Luis Obispo makes the most of the small landscaping space.

I may have some tips that will save you years of frustration and disappointment in that shade tree you’re about to plant at your place this spring.

Hopefully that caught your attention. So now I need to step up and prove it. I’m going to do so by listing pitfalls to avoid and steps to success. I’ll just list them as they pass through my mind.

Buy from a reputable source. The tree you’re about to buy represents the biggest asset you’ll have in your landscape. Buy from a nursery known for selling high quality plants.

Know the mature size and life expectancy of the tree you’re about to purchase. Don’t buy a tree that isn’t a match for the space you have available for it, and don’t buy some fast-growing junker that won’t be around 15 or 20 years from now. Let a nursery professional guide you in making your choice.

Position your tree carefully. It shouldn’t be in line with any other man made improvement (fences, corners of buildings, other people’s trees, etc.). Don’t plant them in the center of a yard. You want your landscape to look natural, and nature isn’t that precise. Use the photographer’s 60:40 ratio. In standard city lots, you want a tree to be 60 percent of the way from the house to the street and 60 percent of the way from the front walk to the property line.

Allow ample room for your tree to grow without encumbering your house. For a large species of shade tree and a two-story house you’ll want to allow 18 or 20 feet from the foundation. For a one-story building you’ll want to have 14 or 15 feet. Monitor the roots’ growth to be sure no major root heads straight for the concrete slab. Sever any that do at a distance of 10 or 12 feet from the house.

Plant your new tree at the same depth at which it was growing in the nursery. Dig the hole to match the soil ball’s height. If you dig it deeper with the intent of putting loose fill soil beneath the root ball at planting, the weight of the tree will cause it to sink in the hole. A tree that’s planted 2 inches too deep is doomed to slow growth and eventually almost sure death.

Use the extra soil you have left over from digging the hole to form a basin 15 or 18 inches out from the trunk. Do not pile it up around the trunk. You’ll use that basin to facilitate watering by hand for the tree’s first year or two in its new site. That’s because sprinkler lawn and landscape irrigation alone will not be adequate. Soak it deeply every three or four days during the tree’s first growing season and as needed to keep the soil moist the balance of the year.

Stake and guy the tree to hold it vertical after you plant it. You don’t get a second chance once it takes root and starts growing. An out-of-plumb tree will make you restless every time that you look at it. Prevent that from the outset. Use three stakes, one to the south, one to the northeast and one to the northwest. Run cables through a piece of old garden hose or heavy padding to protect the trunk, and use cable clamps to secure them. Keep them taut at all times, and release the cables before the trunk starts to grow around them (usually after 18 to 24 months).

Wrap the trunk of your new trees, especially if you have planted oaks or Chinese pistachios. Those species have very thin bark that is unable to stand up to the Texas summer sun. Trees that shaded one another in the nursery suffer sunscald and splitting bark once they’re planted out in the open in full sunlight. Wrapping will prevent that and subsequent invasion of borers.

As trees grow and cast heavier shade it’s common for turfgrass to falter beneath them. You may be able to remove one or two lower limbs so that sunlight can angle in early or late in the day, but take care not to limb them up too high in a way that might ruin their good looks forever. There may come a time when you need to replace the turfgrass with a shade-tolerant groundcover such as mondograss, purple wintercreeper or Asian jasmine.

As your tree matures you may see roots develop at the surface of the soil. Some gardeners have the mistaken idea that soil has eroded and they make the terrible mistake of bringing fill soil in to cover the roots. The genetics of live oaks, fruitless mulberries, cottonwoods and several other tree species is to produce large roots quite near the soil surface. As the roots grow larger they expand up and out of the soil. Covering them endangers the health of the trees, and it does nothing to solve the problems. The roots will continue to grow larger until they expand out of the soil again. Either talk to a certified arborist about removing an offending root in the fall, or plant a groundcover to conceal them.

You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons 1-3 pm and on WBAP 820AM Sunday mornings 8-10 am. Join him at and follow him on Facebook.