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Fall is a great time to plant shade trees

  • 10/26/2021 4:02:00 PM
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It’s not too late to plant some varieties of shade trees before winter sets in. Fall is an ideal time to plant new trees with mild temperatures and adequate ground moisture.

“Properly planted trees will have a better opportunity for a long healthy life,” said Iowa DNR district forester Mark Vitosh. Improperly planted trees more easily succumb to wind and storms or may look otherwise healthy, but then suddenly die in just 20 years. 

Properly planted trees should have a long, healthy life. The keys to a successful shade tree planting include selecting a species that matches your site’s growing conditions (i.e. soil type, soil drainage, available growing space, full sun or shade, etc.), proper planting, and quality tree care and maintenance throughout the tree’s life. Always call Iowa One Call-811 before you start digging to locate any underground utilities. 

A new five-minute video produced by the Iowa DNR provides tips on how to properly plant a tree from a container and avoid very common mistakes. Go to to view the video. Key tips from the video include:

  • Before digging the planting hole, pull any additional soil away from the top of the root ball to identify the first main lateral root.
  • Measure the distance just above the first lateral root to the bottom of the root ball; that is the depth that you should dig the planting hole. Proper planting depth is key to long-term tree survival.  If the hole is dug too deep the tree can settle over time which can cause long-term health issues.
  • Once you remove the root ball from the container, look for roots that seem to be growing around the root ball. Remove these roots to improve the long-term health of the tree. Use a hand saw to sever those encircling roots a half inch to an inch deep into the root ball.  Shave off the encircling roots on all sides of the root ball.  Also remove any encircling roots on the bottom of the root ball.
  • Attempt to dig the planting hole at least twice the width of the root ball. If the sides of the planting hole are smooth, use the sharp end of the shovel to add texture to the sides of the hole to allow the new tree roots to penetrate the soil profile.
  • Avoid any kind of soil amendments in the planting hole; instead use the soil from the original hole to refill around the roots of the tree. The final soil level should cover the first main lateral root.  As you refill the hole gently pack the soil around the root ball with your hands.
  • Once the tree is planted, slowly water the planting hole (focus water in the location of the root ball) to settle the soil. As the tree grows be sure to water the expanding root system further away from the initial root ball. 

In the first year or two after planting, timely watering, mulching, and in some cases, staking, can be critical for success. Once a tree is well established, structural pruning can help maintain a quality tree into the future. Learn more about proper tree care after planting at