This article was contributed by Robert Richardson, environmentalist and arborist who has planted over 1 million trees in the last 50 years. He currently lives, studies, and maintains forestry in the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon. 

It’s no coincidence that your health and relationship with nature appear to be connected; a large part of personal well-being directly depends on the amount of time spent in and with nature. In reality, it goes much deeper, and research has demonstrated that not only is our mood affected, but so are the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems.

Simply put: whether we acknowledge it or not, we depend on our environment to survive.

Unfortunately, this is often overlooked (or ignored). In today’s world, we often find it difficult to pull our eyes away from our phones, even while driving. Our relationship with nature has never been more disconnected in human history, and our health reflects that.

But there is good news. Nature is forgiving, and you reconnect with her by doing something as simple as planting a tree.

A Connection for the Soul

To some, digging a hole, planting a seed, and waiting for something to happen can feel, well, boring. But what this process teaches us is something profound. When done with intent, it spurs wonder and, more importantly, represents investing in another.

The importance of establishing real connections with living things besides other human beings is equally important to our spiritual and mental health as our interaction with family and friends. Whenever we place life in the ground, we are planting a connection to the earth: a friend. They remember us, they trust us. We become part of their life and they become part of ours, forever. When walking amongst the trees you’ve planted, you (and the trees) will feel an enormous amount of respect and appreciation of each other.

Just as planting a vegetable garden provides the body with nutritious, fresh food, so does planting a tree provide nutrition for the soul. Trees and relationships with them are just as easy to grow as a home garden, but they offer something even more rewarding, with a potential lifetime of enjoyment.

Step 1: Choose Wisely

The first step involves selecting the right tree. Take a good look at your natural surroundings and take note of the trees that grow wild in your area. Any nursery can help you identify and provide a selection of native trees for your project.

To insure the best success, replicating what occurs naturally is the primary rule. Non-native trees will be stressed by an unfamiliar climate and immediately attract disease or insects that they may be susceptible to, putting the tree’s life and the whole environment at risk.

Step 2: Find the Perfect Home and Plant

The second step, then, is selecting the location. Take care not to plant under power lines, over water pipes and not too close to foundations or sidewalks. Consider the tree’s size at maturity and determine if it will fit the area without needing extensive pruning at some point or another.

When planting specifically for shade trees, place them far enough apart that they provide for the the needs of the immediate area without impeding on each other or nearby structures.

Envision the tree when it is fully gown, many years in the future. Be sure to consider if your tree will affect neighbors, pedestrians or vehicle traffic in any way. Consider others in this: will the tree block a view, or impede someone from safely leaving their driveway each day?

Once you’ve chosen the perfect spot and researched the requirements for your tree, follow these general guidelines when planting:

  • Use 50% of the soil that comes out of the hole to build a berm, or bank/raised soil, around the hole. The bigger the tree, the higher the berm should be. The higher the berm, the more water your tree will collect.
  • Leave the other 50% of the soil in the hole, broken up as fine as possible. Take out any rocks or roots before mixing in your amendments, or compost.
  • Amend the soil you have left in the hole by mixing about 50/50 with some composted soil. You can make this yourself with food scraps, coffee grounds, and horse or cow manure.
    • Llama “beans” (poop) are probably the best manure to use because they are ready for immediate use. Otherwise, be sure to give your compost about four months to cure.
  • When planting, have your compost mix, water and mulch ready. Place the tree in the hole quickly and try not to expose the roots to the air for too long. Make sure the roots are loose and pointed downwards, by lifting the tree slightly as you backfill your hole.
  • As you place the root ball in the hole, add enough water to make the soil muddy. Saturate the mixed soils to remove air pockets. The top of the root ball should be slightly higher than grade. The berm should be at least 6 inches above grade. Your first watering should fill the berm to the top without spilling over. Take note of how long it takes for the water to drain dissipate. Water again only when the top of the root ball is dry to the touch.
  • If you need stakes, avoid hitting the root ball when you drive them into the ground and tie the tree loosely between them. Be sure to remove the stakes and ties when the tree can stand on its own, usually after two years.
  • Use a thick layer of wood chips or chunks of bark to cover the berm all the way around. You may want to place a something larger to use as a shade block on the southwest side of your tree’s root ball to be certain that your mulched berm retain a maximum amount of moisture. This is critical to long term health, as it provides a way for the tree to collect and conserve water which keeps the root ball cool even during hot, dry months or during prolonged droughts.

Step 3: Looking to the Long Term

The third step is ensuring long term health. If you’ve selected an indigenous tree and planted it in the right location, with your hole deep and wide and your soils amended properly, then the prospects of long term health are practically guaranteed.

Everything depends on your knowledge of the tree you select. Knowing the growth habit of the tree will tell you where to plant, how big it will eventually be, which determines the diameter and depth of the hole. The bigger the hole, the better the tree will grow. The bigger the tree, the more airspace in height and width it will need. Maintain the environment around the tree with its growth in mind. Likewise, remember that the berm is meant to collect and conserve rain. Visit the tree regularly to ensure the berm hasn’t been broken by an animal or heavy rain.

The best part of planting a tree is coming back to visit and measuring its growth. Be sure to do this often.

Go Plant Your Tree

Remember that planting a tree isn’t just for those looking to craft a connection with the earth. It’s also a great activity for children. For both groups, it provides a simple and effective way for one to measure their own growth as the years pass. What’s more, it teaches one the importance of acknowledging their relationship to nature.

So go outside, plant your tree, and reflect on what you’ve done. When feeling down or disconnected, take a moment to revisit your tree (or, orchard). It will do your body, mind, and soul good.