How to plant a tree

Step-By-Step Guide to Planting a Tree in Your Yard

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Trees are a beautiful and essential part of creating a healthy landscape design. They are good for the planet, can soak up water after a big storm, and add character your home. Trees are a big investment in money, space, and time, so we’ve created this guide to help you find and plant the perfect tree for your yard.

This guide includes basic information on how to:

  • Select the location for your new tree
  • Choose which species to plant
  • Buy a tree from a nursery
  • Plant and care for your new sapling


WHERE TO PLANT your new baby tree

Before deciding whether you will plant a maple or oak, pine or spruce, you will need to look around your yard and assess where you have space to plant a tree.

Tree roots pushing up and damaging asphalt driveway.

Look around. Never plant a large tree too close to your foundation, sidewalk, patio, or driveway. Large trees have large roots that can interfere with these important structural elements. A good rule of thumb is large trees, up to 70 feet or more, should be planted at least 20 feet from the home; medium-sized trees up to 70 feet tall, 15 feet from the home; and small trees 30 feet tall or less, 8 to 10 feet from the home.

Diagram with examples of public and private buried utility lines.

Diagram of subterranean utilities. Solid lines are public utilities. Dotted lines are private.

Look down. Avoid breaking sewer lines, septic lines, or other buried utilities. Contact Gopher State One Call (800-252-1166) before digging, and they will come out and mark any public utilities. Gopher State One Call won’t mark any subterranean pipes or cables that aren’t owned by public utilities. That means if you have an irrigation system, low-voltage lighting conduits, a pool or hot tub, electricity to an out building, or a septic system, you will need to either contact the original installer for any maps of the lines or refer to any maps contractors may have left with you.

Gopher State One Call Logo. Gopher wearing a construction helmet.

Gopher State One Call – A free service provided to Minnesotans for safety and convenience.

Look up. Watch out for power lines. Only short trees that reach a maximum of 18 feet tall can be planted under overhead utility lines.

Miniature shopping cart in the forest.

Picking out your tree

Make sure to choose the right sized tree to help avoid any issues down the line. Make sure there will be space for it to grow without damaging your home, sidewalk, or driveway; blocking sight lines at an intersection; or interfering with pedestrian traffic (no one likes a surprise twig in the eye).

It is important to take into consideration your soil type and the amount of light your tree will receive. This page from the MN DNR is a great resource that breaks down what species are appropriate for different lighting and soil conditions.

You can test your soil with the shake test, or by sending a sample to the U of M Extension.

Types of Trees

Coniferous trees keep their needles all year long, which makes them an excellent selection for privacy and for breaking the wind or providing shelter on open lots.

  • Pines, iconic long needles
  • Spruces, short needles
  • Cedar, scaled needles. Smallest of the three.

If you choose a pine tree, consider that unlike deciduous trees that drop all their leaves at once, pine needles can be difficult to remove. They can be used as mulch in moderation, but their acidic properties can kill the grass nearby.

Deciduous trees lose their leaves. Great for planting on the south side of a home to shade in the summer and allow sunlight through in the winter. Some species will put on a beautiful show in the autumn.

Four different tree shapes: V-Shaped, Pyramidal, Oval, and Round.

Other Factors:

  • Flowers. Flowers can add color and attract wildlife.
  • Fall Color.
  • Fruits or nuts. These can be a pro if you love to forage in your backyard, or a con if cleaning up overripe fruit sounds like an unappealing chore.
  • Shape. Trees can be V-shaped, pyramidal, columnar, oval, or round. Select the shape that compliments your landscape best.

Species to Avoid

Black Walnuts grow tall and stately. However they excrete chemicals into their environment to harm competition. This means any grass or plants under the shade of a black walnut will likely struggle to stay alive.

Cottonwoods are beautiful but are soft, large, and have a shallow root system which makes them unstable during severe weather and a risk to your home.

Quaking Aspen are a very interesting tree as they can spread rhizomatically underground to send up new trunks that grow into their own trees. The largest organism in the world by weight is a stand of quaking aspen in Pando, Utah. Unfortunately, this trait can make them a weedy plant in your backyard.

Ash – Beware the Emerald Ash Borer. Even if this pest hasn’t been discovered in your backyard, the core metropolitan areas of Minneapolis-St.Paul have been reached, and it is likely this invasive pest will continue to spread into the surrounding area.

Trees at a nursery ready for transplanting.

Buying a high quality tree

Look for trees with these characteristics:

  • Strong form with well-spaced, firmly attached branches
  • Trunk free from wounds and damage
  • Signs of healthy roots: the ends of bare roots should be cleanly cut. Balled and burlapped saplings.
  • You should be able to see trunk flare, the area where the trunk widens and connects with the roots, at the top of the root ball.
  • Avoid buying plants with damaged or compressed root balls. The top of the root ball should be flat, and rounding may indicated root loss.
Close up of white hands planting a baby tree.

Planting and caring for your new sapling

You can plant a tree in spring or autumn. Some species will prefer one season over the other. Avoid times of weather extremes, drought, wind, heat, or cold.

  1. Make sure your location is safe to dig by contacting Gopher State One Call and consulting with any contractors who have installed any subterranean wires or pipes.
  2. Dig a shallow, broad planting hole, as much as three times the diameter of the root mass, but no deeper. A wide hole will allow roots to establish faster.
  3. Remove your tree from its container or burlap. If the roots are constricted, break them up to encourage fresh growth.
  4. Transfer your tree into the hole. Always lift your tree by the root ball and not by the trunk.
  5. Check to make sure the hole has been dug to the proper depth. The trunk flare, where the trunk widens before the roots, should be partially visible after the tree is planted.
  6. Straighten the tree in the hole. Take a look at your tree from a distance and from several angles to confirm your tree will grow straight and tall.
  7. Backfill the hole gently but firmly. It is not necessary to apply fertilizer at the time of planting.
  8. Stake the tree if necessary, like if you are planting on a windy site.
  9. Add a layer of mulch 2-4” deep around the tree as wide as you can tolerate. To avoid stem damage, leave a gap around the trunk.
  10. Water thoroughly, but slowly. Keep the soil moist but not waterlogged.

You can expect a little bit of branch or twig dieback, and reduced leaf production after planting your tree. Don’t worry; your new tree is establishing strong roots underground.

Water newly planted/transplanted trees regularly for 3-5 years, a critical factor in establishing healthy trees. For more information on watering your new tree, this PDF from the University of Minnesota Extension is a great resource.

More Information

UMN Extension and nursery professionals are both fantastic resources if you have more questions about how to select and care for your new tree.

UMN Extention Planting and transplanting trees and shrubs

MN DNR – Choosing the Right Tree or Shrub for Your Area – Buying High-Quality Trees

UMN Extension – Tree Selection and Care

UMN Extension – Recommended Trees for Minnesota

Stihl USA – 10 Steps to Plant a Tree Properly

Projects with beautiful trees

Hillside Forest Retreat

Award-winning lake home landscape combines natural materials with Midcentury modern design, making the most of the surrounding trees.

Front Porch Perfection

Front yard landscape design increased the curb appeal of this Minneapolis home and saved a decades-old oak tree in the process.

Dream Home Landscape

Luxurious modern landscape design complements this Rustic Belgian inspired dream home.

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