How I plant a tree

I often get asked gardening questions by friends and was recently asked how to plant a tree (after the tree in question had already been planted, of course.) My friends had just moved into their new house and bought a beautiful mature Chinese Tallow for $500. Now if I had bought a tree for that much money and was unsure how to plant it, I would definitely have asked someone who did, well before it was shoved unceremoniously into a hole dug into Perth’s notoriously bad sandy soil, which is bereft of any nutrients or water-holding capacity whatsoever. To make matters worse, the site was hard up against the side of the house and full of building rubble as well. In it went with a bucketful of Rooster Booster dumped (unmixed) into the bottom of the hole. Hmmm… that’s not exactly how I would have gone about it. To be fair, they were working to a deadline and under an enormous amount of stress, so planting the tree correctly probably wasn’t high on their priority list.

New growth on my friend's Chinese Tallow.

New growth on my friend’s Chinese Tallow.

By the time I saw the tree, almost all its leaves had gone brown and died, perhaps from transplant shock, I don’t know. I scratched the bark and it was still green underneath so all hope was not lost. I suggested they buy several bags of compost and sheep or cow manure and in a roughly 3:1 ratio dig it in around the tree as much as possible to give the poor thing something to put its roots into. Then water the hell out of it to help it get established and cross their fingers.

Happily, my friend sent me this photo of new green leaves sprouting, which is actually quite odd given that it’s deciduous and it’s Autumn, but nevertheless a good sign.

How I plant a tree

Note: this is specific to my site in Mundaring (Western Australia), which has heavy clay soils.

This is not meant as a lecture for my friends nor do I for a moment suggest I have all the answers, but having just planted my own fig tree, I thought I would share how I went about it. How I plant a tree, like many things I do here at Edgefield, is an attempt to reduce, reuse and recycle as much as possible. Unfortunately, I’m not in a position yet where I’m generating all my own inputs (compost, manure, mulch, etc) but it is my aim. However, I do try and recycle all our household paper and cardboard in the garden though, which puts carbon/organic matter back into the soil. It’s not much but it’s better than nothing.

  1. Dig a a 1.5m x 1.5m x 1m hole.
    I cheated here and got my awesome neighbour, Tony, and his excavator to do the dirty work for me (God bless diesel). Had I attempted to dig this hole by hand in my ridiculously hard clay soil, I’d have wrecked my back and I’d still be at it now. That being said, we have made a very permaculture arrangement and swapped services/time (hour for hour) and not money. Jeff is designing Tony’s granny flat and managing his planning approvals process and Tony is digging us holes with all his earthmoving equipment. Perfect! I only wish we could do more of this sort of barter arrangement. Keeping money out of the equation is such a win/win.
  2. Test the soil pH (mine was acidic so I needed to add Dolomite Lime to raise the pH).
  3. Collect all your inputs:
    • Spray-on Eco-Gypsum solution (clay breaker)
    • Blended cow and sheep manure
    • Mushroom compost
    • River sand
    • Dolomite lime
    • Blood and bone
    • Trace elements (I normally add rock dust but had run out)
    • Manured straw collected from the chicken coop (two wheelbarrows)
    • Ripped up cardboard (Nespresso/cereal/pasta boxes) and shredded paper
    • Mulch (I used some old coconut fibre hanging basket liners in this case)
  4. Spray Gypsum/water solution into the hole and piles of soil (this is not needed in Perth where the soils are generally sandy, but the Hills, where I live, is a whole different story).
  5. Layer all the inputs into the hole bit by bit, mixing as you go.
  6. Plant your tree, firm it down creating a water basin with the soil.
  7. Water well and mulch.

Hopefully all the horticulturalists and experienced permies out there won’t tell me I’m doing it all wrong. I’m really just experimenting and learning as I go. It’s not rocket science but it does take time to do it properly.

If I had attempted to explain all this to my friend with the Chinese Tallow tree, she’d have laughed at me and thought I was insane. So I only geek out on gardening/permaculture stuff with like-minded people.