At Home: Ten steps to planting trees in Topeka

Selecting a damage-free tree is the first step

Ariel Whitely, horticulture agent for Shawnee County Research and Extension

Trees are one of the most valuable aspects of a landscape and a crucial part of our ecosystem.


From reducing energy costs by shading homes to providing habitat for insects, birds and mammals, trees matter.

Trees can be planted in the spring or the fall. Planting a tree properly is a vital step in making sure your new addition is around for years to come.

Planting a tree falls into a simple 10-step plan that will give your tree the best start in its new home.

  • Tree selection: Diseases, pests, broken branches, winter burn, drought stress and death are just a few tree issues that can be avoided with proper tree selection.


    K-State’s publication “Answers To … What Shall I Plant?” gives a comprehensive guide on tree selection.

    The publication is free online here or at the Shawnee County Extension Office, 1740 S.W. Western Ave.

    When selecting a tree from a nursery, don’t choose a damaged one.

    The tree may be off balance due to poor pruning, have severely girdling roots, damaged bark or signs of pests — all red flags. Starting with a healthy tree will be your best chance of having a healthy tree for years to come.

    Pay attention to root ball size. For every inch of trunk diameter, it should have 10 to 12 inches of root ball diameter.

  • Transport and storage: Take care when transporting your new tree. Don’t carry it by the trunk or allow the root ball to dry out.


    If possible, leave the tree in a shady location until you’re ready to plant.

  • No strings attached: Make sure all tags, wires and strings are removed from the tree prior to planting. Anything left on the tree can girdle the trunk or branches.
  • Dig a good hole: Your tree should be placed in the bottom of a hole — the same depth as the root ball — where it won’t sink further down. The first level of primary roots should be placed at the soil surface, not beneath the soil.


    The width of the hole should be three times the diameter of the root ball. Tree roots grow primarily horizontally from the root ball.

  • Set it free: Remove as much of the plastic pot, peat pot and burlap as possible. If there is a small amount of girdling roots, cut the bottom and sides of the root system.
  • Fill the hole: Backfill the hole with the same soil that came out of it. Adding any amendments to the soil may do more harm than good. The root flare of the tree should be visible above the soil. To ensure the root flare is visible, you may have to remove some of the soil that came with the tree.
  • Avoid pruning: Only remove branches that are damaged. Other branches — or their buds — are needed to send signals to the roots to grow.
  • Water: Make sure you water your tree thoroughly after planting. After that, water once a week for the first year if there is no rain. For evergreens especially, continue to water through winter if the ground isn’t frozen.


    Overwatering your tree can be just as damaging as neglecting it. Pay attention to the specific variety needs, weather and soil moisture.

  • Mulch: Mulch helps retain moisture, protect the roots from climate fluctuations and keep competing trees and plants away. Improperly mulching can do as much damage as no mulch at all.


    Mulch around the tree 2 to 4 inches deep — shallower near the tree, getting deeper as you go outward — in a ring around the tree that spans two to three times wider than the root ball. Do not mulch directly up against the bark of the tree.

  • Staking: Only stake trees when necessary. Staking should immobilize the root ball, not the trunk.


Ariel Whitely is the horticulture agent for Shawnee County Research and Extension.


“Pumpkins — Preparation and Preservation” will be presented at 1 p.m. Oct. 11 at the Shawnee County Extension Office, 1740 S.W. Western Ave.

The class, which is open to the public, will focus on carving and preserving a Halloween jack-o’-lantern. Participants will walk away with their creations, pumpkin seeds and a recipe for roasting the seeds.

Enrollment is topped at 10; reservations are required. Price for the class is $10, payable upon reservation.

Information: (785) 232-0062.