How to plant balled-and-burlapped trees

shovel to the ground

Fall is an ideal time to plant root ball and burlap trees as there is time for their root systems to become established before spring.

Tree roots will grow as long as the soil temperature stays above 40F. When trees are planted in the fall, their root systems continue to develop throughout the winter. These more extensive root systems are then better equipped to support spring growth.

Balled and burlap trees in particular can benefit from the downtime that fall planting brings, as they can lose up to 90% of their root system when they are removed from the ground for balling and burlap planting, and can rely on the time to fully recover from transplanting.

Before planting

Before investing in new trees, consider how the resources available in your garden match the resources different species of trees need to survive. Ask and answer these questions:

  • Will the chosen species do well in your growing area? Always remember that native plants are easier to establish, require less maintenance, and are likely to grow better than non-native varieties. It’s also wise to make sure you don’t plant anything that’s considered invasive in your area.
  • Will the chosen species grow in your soil? There are tree species that grow on all types of soil – heavy clay, sandy, rocky, mixed – with all degrees of moisture. You should choose a species that grows well in the soil in your garden.
  • Does it grow well in sun, shade, or a partially shaded area? If you have a specific spot in mind to plant a new tree, consider how much light that spot will get throughout the day and choose a variety that will thrive in those conditions. Or if you’ve selected a specific species that will tolerate your soil, pay attention to its sunlight requirements before choosing a location. It is much easier to anticipate the tree’s needs beforehand than to attempt to transplant later.
  • Will it affect the other plants nearby and vice versa? The potential for negative interactions should be considered before planting a new tree, as some trees can negatively affect the other plants around them. An example would be black walnut trees. They release juglone into the soil, which is toxic to many other plants. There are those that are tolerant, but this should be considered before planting a black walnut tree or planting anything near a black walnut tree. When you go to a nursery to choose your tree, before you buy a new variety, ask about any known negative interactions.

Should you remove the burlap?

Quite a debate about planting trees with ball and burlap. On the one hand there is the argument of planting them with burlap and cage (if one was placed outside the burlap) to protect the root ball and keep it intact. On the other hand, there is an argument to remove it so that the tree’s growth over time is not affected by the burlap and cage.

Leave the burlap on. Most sources seem to agree that leaving the burlap and wire cage in place will help the tree establish more quickly by not disturbing the root ball, protecting the remaining roots, and preserving soil structure around the root system. Natural burlap will naturally decompose over time and the tree will grow around the cage.

Removing the Burlap. However, some choose to remove the canvas because they believe that getting out of the canvas and cage negatively affects the long-term health of the tree. The thought is that burlap hinders root development by creating a barrier between the root ball and the natural soil as it decomposes, and a cage is an immovable object around which the tree cannot grow.

In some circumstances, removing the burlap is the only option. If synthetic burlap is used, it must be removed. It’s mostly plastic, which means it won’t rot and interfere with outward growth of the roots.

Plant trees with bales and burlap

  1. Dig a hole twice the diameter but no deeper than the root ball.
  2. Place the tree in the hole so that it is upright and properly positioned.
  3. Remove the string around the base of the log and basket.
  4. Check the burlap by burning a small piece of it. Natural burlap burns to ash while synthetic burlap melts and forms a bead.
  5. If the burlap is plastic, use a sharp knife to remove as much as possible without breaking up the root ball.
  6. If the burlap is natural and you have decided to leave it on, fold it down the sides of the root ball where it can be left in the planting hole to decompose.
  7. If there is a wire cage, cut off the top third of the basket and remove it so it doesn’t strangle the tree as it grows. The bottom of the cage can be left intact.
  8. Start backfilling the hole with soil you removed from digging the hole until it’s half full.
  9. Tamp the ground firmly without grabbing too hard.
  10. Soak the dirt with a gentle spray of water to soothe the floor and remove large air pockets. Do not oversaturate the soil into a slurry.
  11. After the water has entered, backfill the hole so that it is level with the base of the log. The part that expands outward should be visible. For trees without this characteristic, the soil should only be filled up to cover the top roots.
  12. Add a 4-6 inch layer of straw or mulch to retain moisture.
  13. Your newly planted tree should be watered every 7-10 days when there is no rainfall.
  14. Wait until spring to fertilize and then only fertilize lightly.



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