Positioning the Tree in the Hole
Lift the tree by its rootball, not by the trunk, and set it into the planting hole. Position it so the trunk is vertical and the tree is oriented so its best side faces front. Verify, one last time, that the tree is planted at the proper height. Place a shovel handle or yardstick across the open hole and rootball to determine if the crown or soil line on the trunk is level with, or even slightly above, the level of the surrounding ground.
Reach down into the sides of the hole and cut away all twine and burlap that you can reach if the rootball is wrapped. Cut off the top sections of the wire basket if it is present. Position roots that protrude from the soilball outward toward the sloping sides of the hole.
Filling the Hole
Since the goal is to encourage tree roots to grow beyond the planting hole as quickly as possible, do not add fertilizer or enriched soil to the soil used to fill up the hole. Young roots will be inclined to stay in that ideal environment of improved soil and not spread widely into the ordinary soil beyond. Ordinary soil will acclimate the tree to its new environment and encourage it to adjust and seek out nutrients and moisture beyond the hole. Make an exception to this rule if your soil is very heavy clay. Add some organic matter such as peat moss, dried grass clippings or chopped leaves to the backfill soil.
Shovel the soil into the hole around the tree’s rootball, stopping periodically to tamp it firmly but gently over the roots with your foot. Then add more soil until the hole is full. Do not put sod, large rocks, or construction debris into the hole; they will interfere with root development.
Forming a Water Basin
Form a waterholding basin around the trunk by mounding a ring of soil around the perimeter of the planting hole to hold water and prevent run-off. Then water thoroughly, filling the basin repeatedly until it no longer soaks in, to assure good soil to root contact.
Finally, cover the area within the basin with two to four inches of an organic mulch such as chopped leaves, shredded bark or wood chips. Do not pile it up against the tree trunk. An alternative for small trees is a circular, protective mulch pad made from chopped, recycled automobile tires that allows air and water to penetrate. Use this for a year or two alone or with a wider ring of organic mulch until the tree is established. Then use organic mulch year round to conserve moisture, discourage weeds and keep lawnmowers and string trimmers at bay.