Tree Care Tips & Techniques
These comprehensive tree care tips will guide you through the process of selecting, planting, and caring for the right tree for your space.
It’s important to remember that proper tree care starts when you select a tree. And what you do to your tree in its first few years of life will affect its shape, strength, and even its lifespan. Following these steps will make sure your tree gets a good start for a healthy life.
Choosing the Right Type of Tree
Proper tree care begins with selecting the right tree and planting it in the right place. Make sure your tree will thrive — especially once fully grown — where you want to plant it. Things to consider include:
- The tree’s purpose. Are you planting it for aesthetics, privacy, shade/energy reduction, windbreak, or as a street tree? Your end goal will determine the suitability of different trees.
- Planting site limitations. What is your hardiness zone? What is the maximum height and spread for a tree in the space? What are the sun exposure and soil conditions? This information is available for more than 200 trees and woody shrubs in our Tree Guide.
Learn more about planting the Right Tree in the Right Place. You can also find a tree with the Tree Wizard — a free online tool to help you narrow down your choices and select the right tree for the right place.
Right Tree, Right Place
Short, flowering trees don’t clash with overhead utility lines. Large deciduous trees on the southeast, southwest, and west provide cooling shade in the summer but don’t obstruct the warming winter sunlight. An evergreen windbreak to the north blocks cold winds in winter.
Selecting a Healthy Tree
Good tree care starts with a healthy tree. Here’s what to look for to ensure your tree can provide a lifetime of benefits.
- Roots should be moist and fibrous.
- Deciduous seedlings should have roots about equal to stem length.
Balled and Burlapped Trees
- Root ball should be firm to the touch, especially near the trunk.
- Root ball should be adequate for the tree’s size.
- Container should not contain large, circling roots.
- Pruned roots should be cut cleanly, none wider than a finger.
- Soil and roots should be joined tightly.
Additional considerations when purchasing a mature tree include:
- A strong, well-developed leader (or leaders in a multi-leader tree).
- Bright, healthy bark.
- Trunk and limbs free of insect or mechanical injury.
- Branches well-distributed around trunk, considerably smaller caliper than trunk.
- Ideal spacing between branches, at least 8–12" for most species.
- Good trunk taper.
- Wide-angle crotches for strength.
- Low branches — they are temporary but help develop taper, promote trunk caliper growth, and prevent sun damage.
Planting a Tree
Watch these step-by-step videos and learn how to plant your new tree.
Mulch is a newly planted tree’s best friend because it:
- Insulates the soil, helping to provide a buffer from heat and cold.
- Retains water to help the roots stay moist.
- Keeps weeds out to avoid root competition.
- Prevents soil compaction.
- Reduces lawn mower damage.
Steps to Adding Mulch Around Your Tree
- Remove any grass within a 3-foot area (up to 10 feet for larger tree).
- Pour natural mulch such as wood chips or bark pieces 2 to 4 inches deep within the circle.
- Keep the mulch from touching the trunk of the tree.
Tree watering is a key part of tree care, but it is difficult to recommend an exact amount due to the variety of climates. A few guidelines will help you to water your trees properly.
Watering Newly Planted Trees
For new trees, water immediately after you plant a tree. Usually 30 seconds with a steady stream of water from a garden hose w/ a diffuser nozzle per tree seedling is sufficient.
Watering Trees During First Two Years
During the first couple growing seasons, your newly planted tree is expending a lot of energy trying to get its roots established in the soil. Especially during the first few summers of your new trees life, it will have a difficult time dealing with heat and drought. You can make this easier by providing water and covering the soil with wood-chip mulch. Deep watering can help speed the root establishment. Deep water consists of keeping the soil moist to a depth that includes all the roots.
How Much Water and When
Not enough water is harmful for the tree, but too much water is bad as well. Over-watering is a common tree care mistake. Please note that moist is different than soggy, and you can judge this by feel. A damp soil that dries for a short period will allow adequate oxygen to permeate the soil.
You can check soil moisture by using a garden trowel and inserting it into the ground to a depth of 2", and then move the blade of the trowel back and forth to create a small narrow trench. Then use your finger to touch the soil. If it is moist to the touch, then they do not need water.
If your area constantly deals with drought you will want to consider trees listed as drought-tolerant. Some drought-tolerant species include Arizona Cypress, Japanese Zelkova, White Fir, and Kentucky Coffeetree.
On the opposite side of the spectrum if your area deals with a large amount of moisture or wet conditions, here are a few trees that will do better in wet conditions: Baldcypress, Shellbark Hickory, Red Maple, Silver Maple, Paper Birch, River Birch, and Weeping Willow.
Proper pruning technique is important for a healthy tree. Please review our animated Tree Pruning Guide as well as videos on why pruning is necessary, the rules of pruning, and the ABCs of pruning.
When to Prune
This depends to a large extent on why you prune. Light pruning and the removal of dead wood can be done anytime. Otherwise, below are some guidelines for the different seasons.
Pruning during dormancy is the most common practice. It results in a vigorous burst of new growth in the spring and should be used if that is the desired effect. It is usually best to wait until the coldest part of winter has passed.
To direct the growth by slowing the branches you don’t want, or to “dwarf” the development of a tree or branch, pruning should be done soon after seasonal growth is complete. Another reason to prune in the summer is for corrective purposes. Defective limbs can be seen more easily.
Pruning Flowering Trees to Enhance Flowering
For trees that bloom in spring, prune when their flowers fade. Trees and shrubs that flower in mid- to late summer should be pruned in winter or early spring.
When Not To Prune: Fall
Because decay fungi spread their spores profusely in the fall and wounds seem to heal more slowly on fall on cuts, this is a good time to leave your pruning tools in storage.
Our animated Tree Pruning Guide will walk you through the Keys to Good Pruning and Annual Tree Pruning Steps from Planting to Maturity.
Additional Tree Care Information
In addition to these tips, we offer several resources for more detailed tree care, pruning, and planting techniques: