Ask a Consulting Arborist Q&A: Tree Planting Tips and Species Recommendations

Q: How can I save new trees planted in wire basket?

Tuesday, June 07, 2016  

Q: I have just discovered that the new hardwood trees planted around my new house were stuck in the ground with the wire basket and burlap intact. The trees were doing poorly, so I removed the mulch and about an inch of soil and found the wire basket intact and roots growing around the inside
of the basket in a circular direction. The trees have now been in the ground for a little over two years. I will be forever grateful if you can please tell me how to fix this! Thank you!

A: After poor plant selection (that is, poor plant suitability for the site and/or poor plant quality), improper planting technique is the second leading cause of problems associated with transplanting trees. For the highest chances of successful transplanting, it is best to plant an appropriate tree well. Excepting that possibility, it is better to plant a lesser quality tree well than to plant a higher quality tree poorly. The size and shape of the hole, the depth of the hole, the depth of the tree within the root ball, the contrast of the native soil to the soil of your nursery stock, the presence of root obstructions (such as burlap or wire baskets), and consideration of a properly implemented guying system are all important factors to evaluate when planting trees or shrubs.

Wire baskets and burlap are formed around the root ball of field-grown nursery stock to aid in maintaining the root ball of trees intact during transport. Fracture of the root ball can kill many types of trees‹ especially evergreens, but sometimes hardwoods as well. Depending on the conditions at planting time, the burlap and wire basket may be removed entirely, but more often than not, the tree may be set in the hole (at the proper depth) and the burlap cut away about half way down the side of the root ball with the remainder being tucked into the bottom of the hole. Likewise, the top couple of rings of the wire basket may be removed leaving the lower rings attached to the root ball--be careful not to disturb the sides of the root ball when removing the wire. Normally this is sufficient to remove any potential root obstructions that may develop over time. Once the burlap and wire basket have been removed, moving the tree is ill-advised, so removal of transport material should only occur once the tree is in the hole and at the proper depth. The buttresses of your trees should be about an inch to two inches raised above the surface of your native soils. Oftentimes, nursery production leaves the buttress buried several inches into the ball and the top of the root ball must be excavated away from the trunk in order to see the top of the buttress to facilitate proper planting depth. The hole opening at the top should be about twice the width of the root ball, with the sides of the hole sloping so that they meet the bottom of the root ball at the intended planting depth. The more root ball disturbance your trees encounter during the first two years after being transplanted, the less likely they will survive the damage caused to the roots. You can find more helpful information at


Responder: Marty Shaw, RCA #470, Franklin, TN