top of page
  • winglewichsam

Do This, Not That - Big Tree Planting in Sonoma County, CA

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.

But what if you want that 20 year old tree today? Thanks to Sonoma's benevolent weather and year round growing seasons, you can get a whopper of a tree in your landscape, with only a short wait, and a bit of a fee.

The benefits to planting a mature tree are numerous. Instant gratification, and immediate shade come to mind. The drawbacks are also numerous. Big trees are not so forgiving to poor planting practices or adverse conditions as a small one. In the same way a 5 year old child can pick up a second language faster than a 15 year old, a 5 year old tree is adaptable and not set in its ways. The longer a tree sits in a nursery, the longer it becomes used to nursery life - a highly controlled, pampered, and sheltered existance. The older the nursery plant, the most likely it will freak out and die when installed, no matter if you did all the right things. This is why smart homeowners know when to put the tools down and call a pro. Regardless of how green your thumb is, or who plants the tree, there's a few things specifically relating to big trees to consider when planning your project.

DO - Dig Big

Digging is hard. I don't need to elaborate on this. So accept the dig, sharpen that shovel, and be prepared to dig a hole twice the width (not the depth) as your tree's container.

The reason we do this harkens back to Grand-Dad with the rotortiller. Grand-Dad, or mine, anyways, was a skillfull, intuitive gardener. Nobody taught him - it seemed the trees, rocks, and roots would guide his hands. Instead of lightly disturbing neat rows just enough for the new seeds to take, he would plunge the dual tines of his long-suffering rototiller almost half a foot into the substrate, and break the entire garden, six inches deep, until the entire area was a soft, airy bed of loam. And his lettuce, zucchinis, and pumpkins were the envy of the neighborhood.

Why did he have such a successful harvest? He took the time to create a big, soft area for the roots to spread. Disturbed soils are easy for new roots to permeate. By digging the hole twice the width of the tree, you're "tilling" the ground all around it. Keep in mind - a wild tree's root system is 1-2x the width of the canopy. Your box tree definitely has one cloistered little root system begging to be set free.

Why no deeper than the root system? Two big reasons.

- Nearly all of a tree's root system exists in the first 24 inches of soil, save for tap roots, which take longer to develop and are made of harder, more penetrative root material

- Disturbing the dirt under the tree can cause settling, and the tree will lean or die as a result of being planted too deep.

Generally, you want to keep the root flare (where the tree trunk meets the soil) a few inches above grade when installed.

DON'T - Break The Bark

Generally the worst portion to damage on your new tree is the trunk. It carries sugars and water from roots to canopy, and can be quite a tricky thing to heal. Busting up the tree's bark is a lot like you getting a big cut near a major artery - it's serious!

When moving the tree, do whatever it takes to avoid bark damage. Some gardeners use an old jacket or bubble wrap if bark-wrecking equipment like picks, shovels, or tractors are working close. Smart gardeners know if deer or cows will be near, and will erect a temporary fence to discourage animals from itching themselves on the new tree's trunk. And of course, NEVER use the trunk to lift or move the tree. It's not particularly strong yet, and you may damage a lot more than just the bark!

DO - Re-stake!

Nurseries have a lot of busy-work and often not a lot of staff. One common task that gets put off for too long is re-staking. Trees need a little help to grow straight and perfect, but too much help can begin to hurt if the tree stakes grow too tight or stay on for too long.

Normally, trees are staked at the nursery with one big stake taped to the trunk with green nursery tape. This allows the tree to be moved with ease, but can easily choke a tree or create a stake dependent tree. Once the tree is in your yard, this method, shown on the left is the way to go.

The goal of late-stage tree staking is to train it to grow straight and tall while permitting a little wiggle room. The wind will wiggle the tree back and forth a small amount, telling the tree that it better establish some strong holding roots or it will fall and perish. Gently affix tree ties to nursery poles staked at 1-2 feet away from the trunk, and check them often to see if they are growing too tight. Generally, err on the side of looseness. You wouldn't want to "choke" the trunk and restrict nutrient flow, but if the tree only wants to fall, then make the ties only as rigid as you need. Remove the stakes as soon as you feel it can withstand reasonable weather patterns in your area on its own. A tree staked too tight for too long will become lean and bendy, dependent on staking forever.

DON'T - Underestimate the weight

Trees are deceptively heavy!

A 24inch box tree will weigh 150-250lbs, and you're definately going to want help. Help for a 36 inch tree, weighing in at over a half ton, or a 48inch tree, tipping the scale at over 2500lbs, comes in the form of heavy equipment, like this John Deere loader. Every contractor I know has a special way of handling these ungainly beasts, ranging from the basic "squeeze it between two pallet forks" to elaborate slings or grabbing attatchments.

Weigh the benefits of delivery vs DIY hauling. You're going to need a roomy van at the least, a big trailer for your big truck at the most. For a few hundred bucks, you can usually get the nursery to arrange a curbside delivery. What you do after it's dropped at the curb is out of their hands.

DO - Water Wisely!

Whether it's an automatic irrigation system or your own hands and a hose, you must water that new tree or the soil around the new tree will suck all the moisture out of the rootball and starve the tree of moisture it craves.

The important thing to understand about trees is they demand deeper, less frequent waterings than your normal landscaping plants. Instead of watering for 20 minutes a few times a week, the tree will benefit more from a hour long watering once a week. You need water to penetrate the deepest parts of the root system, and that system can be fairly deep.

Monrovia, one of the largest growers in California, recommends this nifty DIY deeproot irrigation device for helping an ailing tree through a drought. It's also applicable for tree lovers without the means to purchase or install an irrigation system with a special zone dedicated to new trees. I'd recommend placing four tubes on the farthest edges of the hole before you backfill the tree hole. Placing the watering tubes a little farther away helps to persuade roots to spread outwards and anchor the tree firmly into the ground. A tree with a wide, deep root system will endure tough conditions.

There IS such a thing as too much water. Keep an eye out for yellowing and drooping, a telltale sign of waterlogged roots. Water starved trees tend to "brown out" and the leaves may curl in/up while overwatered trees tend to get "yellow and sad" with drooping leaves and washed-out colors. Dig down 1-1.5 inches and squish the soil between your hands. If it feels hard, crumbly, or powdery, your soil is too dry. If it leaves your hands wet or water squishes out, cut back on the water. The perfectly watered soil be moist, just moist, and will stick together without feeling swampy or muddy.

DON'T - Overprune

The crew has a motto with new trees - prune only what you must. Most new trees are fairly well pruned from the nursery, but do keep an eye out for dead parts and damages. Pruning these helps the tree delegate energy to spreading its roots and stiffening its trunk instead of fixing. And if there's two leaders on a single trunked tree, prune it now. The sooner a tree can delegate one leader per trunk, the faster it can grow.

Reserve selective pruning - removal of ugly, broken, or crossing branches back to the trunks, should be reserved for when the tree is better established, usually after a year or two. The tree has a lot on its plate between growing leaves, spreading roots, and combatting shock. Don't add healing big woulds to the tree's to-do list.

DO - Call Wingle!

A local nursery quoted one of my customers nearly five-thousand dollars for the delivery and the installation of a mature olive. To buy it new was three grand!

We're not saying we're cheap, far from it. We have full time technicians paid prevailing wages for the skills they spent so long to hone. But, we do have access to wholesale plants and big equipment. We had that same big olive planted in the front yard in a day, for just a bit less than the whole tree costed at that expensive retail nursery. The client was thrilled, and we still made a good profit after fuel, suppliers, and everyone else was paid for.

The bottom line is this - we possess the skills, connections, and knowledge to provide you with a top notch large tree planting service. If you can't do it, we sure can.

Call, text, or email any time for top notch service. Everytime you see your new tree, we hope you remember us fondly.


10 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page