Planting Trees - Large and Small

by Ken Muellers

Ken Muellers is a NYS certified Nursery/Landscape Professional and can be contacted at 

Ken Muellers is a NYS certified Nursery/Landscape Professional and can be contacted at 

As a landscape designer, I sometimes realize that the part of my job that will have the greatest long-term impact is planting trees. Sure, we design patios out of stone and concrete and we plant acres of sod, but when I am long since gone from this life, the trees that I have planted will not just remain, but will have grown to literally overshadow those patios and lawns.

Because of this enduring effect, planting the RIGHT tree is all the more important. When picking that tree, it is important to remember that a small tree can grow to be a big tree, but a crappy tree will never turn into a good tree. In other words, if you are trying to economize, buy a smaller specimen of a healthy, well formed tree of a preferred species and variety that will grow, rather than a “bargain” tree that will only be a liability over time.

Some people are looking for the instant gratification of planting a mature tree. With enough money, and an accessible site, you can plant trees 30 or 40 feet tall. But the effort and cost involved may exceed the benefits. This is because as the tree you are moving gets bigger, the size of the rootball must get proportionately larger too. Which means bigger equipment to move the tree, and more challenging logistics to get it to where you want to plant it.     

There is also a law of diminishing returns that comes into play. This is because the larger and older the tree, the longer it takes to get re-established. They say it takes about one year per each inch of trunk diameter for a tree to get settled back in. So if you plant a tree with a 2” diameter trunk, it will start spreading roots and putting on new growth in a year or two, while a large 9” caliper specimen tree may take a decade to acclimate and start growing again. So the two inch tree may even out-grow the larger tree in the years following planting. This is because when a tree is dug to be planted, it can lose up to 80 or 90 percent of its roots. That is also why it is critical that you give a new tree plenty of extra water.

Sometimes relocating a large tree can be done with a mechanical tree spade. Mounted on the back of a truck, these behemoths can scoop out a 90 inch rootball along with the tree and transport it to an awaiting hole. This can help minimize root loss and increase survivability. The key limiting factor is both the location the tree was in, and where it is going – both have to be accessible by truck.

As far as the best time for planting trees, it really has more to do with digging than planting. The stressful aspect is digging the tree and losing all those roots, not planting it. So if a tree is in a nursery already dug, you can plant it almost anytime the ground is not frozen. Some trees, such as cherries, birches and beeches prefer to be only dug in the spring. They call these trees “fall digging hazards.” When I am asked what is the best time to plant a tree I prefer the old standard answer – “Last year.” Better to plant a small tree soon, than a big tree never. Happy planting!