The History of Arbor Day & How to Plant a Tree

by Jerry Hilburn on Apr 29, 2021

The History of Arbor Day & How to Plant a Tree

Arbor Day - The History

Today we celebrate Arbor Day, a holiday that has been observed in the United States for over 100 years. Nationally, Arbor Day is held on the last Friday of April, however, many states celebrate this holiday at a time of year that is more conducive to planting trees in their climate. For example, Florida’s Arbor Day is on the third Friday in January, and New Mexico’s is the second Friday in March.

Herbert Hoover Planting a Tree for Arbor Day. Image courtesy of Nebraska Education Location

Arbor Day’s history originates in 1870’s Nebraska, when settlers were putting down roots during westward expansion. One of those settlers was Julius Sterling Morton, who moved to the then barren landscape with his wife, Caroline. Missing the East coast’s thriving forests and trees, the couple began to fill their land with greenery. Shortly thereafter, Morton became editor of the Nebraska City News and used his platform to encourage other Nebraskans to plant trees and turn the desert environment into something that would benefit generations to come.

Through Morton’s influence, the first Arbor Day was celebrated on April 10, 1872 and resulted in the planting of over one million trees. 20 years later, Americans everywhere recognized that forestation and conservation were an important investment in their future, and Arbor Day was held in every state except for Delaware. Despite its widespread popularity, Arbor Day did not become a national holiday until 1970 when Richard Nixon championed the cause.

Today, Arbor Day is supported by the Arbor Day Foundation, a nonprofit responsible for the planting and distribution of over 10 million trees each year. On top of that, there are millions of individuals across the globe who spend the day planting trees, educating others on the importance of frees and forests, and appreciating the over 60,000 species of trees that call Earth their home.

How to Plant a Tree

Want to celebrate Arbor Day by planting a tree but aren’t sure where to start? Let us help you out.

Picking a Tree

Just like with any plant, you will need to do some research in order to pick the tree that is right for your space. Find the spot in your yard (or home) that you want the tree to end up, then monitor the amount of light that that particular location receives. You’ll also want to keep in mind how large the tree will grow, and whether it will give off fruit. For an in-depth guide on different types of trees and their requirements, check out the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree Guide.

Once you have a type of tree in mind, head to your local nursery that offers a replacement warranty. Any nursery worth its salt will have a warranty in place simply because they stand by the quality of their sapling. It may be tempting to buy a tree that is already large and in charge, but it is much easier to stress a tree during transplantation that has a massive root ball. That’s why we recommend starting with a sapling. Little trees are easy to transplant, and easier to handle.

You’ll want to check the tree itself before purchase. Make sure that the tree is free of any damage or broken branches. If the tree itself looks pretty good, take a look at the root ball and inspect for tangled, big, circling roots. That is the opposite of what you want, because you need those roots to grow strong out into the ground in order to collect nutrients and anchor the trunk.

Planting the Tree

Step 1

Now that you have your dream tree picked out, it’s time to plant! Prep a hole that is about 2.5 times wider than the root ball but the same depth. Burying the trees deeper than the root ball can lead to root rot. After you dig the hole, you want to create areas for the roots to penetrate as they grow. You can do this with the jet function on your hose, or simply with the tip of your shovel. Perfect, circular holes will make the roots ball up and not want to extend outwards.

Step 2

Pull your new tree out of its container and check on the roots. If there are any that are damaged or circling, go ahead and cut those off. You’ll also want to loosen the root ball a bit by hand. Once your roots are ready, place the tree into your prepared hole and spread the roots that are on the side outward. Next, position the tree so that the flare of the trunk is above the soil line. For an explanation on what exactly root flare is, as well as a proper visualization, check out Purdue University’s Forestry and National Resources Extension’s article on the subject.

Step 3

Fill in the hole with the original soil! Do this a little bit a time, hand packing the soil as you go to prevent air pockets. Do not use potting soil, or a compost mix for this because that may create a container like environment for the tree that will result in circling roots. You may use amendments, but they are not necessary and should be thoroughly mixed into the original soil before it is replaced. Once you have the soil in, double check that it’s not covering the top of the root ball and make sure you can see the flare of the trunk. Adjust as needed.

Step 4

Now that the tree is in and the soil is replaced, it’s time to mulch. Do not skip this step! Mulch helps retain moisture, suppress weeds, and keeps surface roots cool. Mulch should be added around the tree in a 2 to 4 inch layer, leaving at least 1 to 2 inches of space from the trunk. The best mulches are organic and include bark, leaves, and wood chips to name a few. 

Step 5

Water! This is a crucial step to ensuring that your tree and its roots establish properly early on. Watering a tree requires deep and slow irrigation. You can’t simply spray the area with your hose and hope for the best because that moisture will not penetrate the roots. The best tool to use for this task is a Deep Root Irrigator which you can attach to your hose and let run while you take care of your other plants. For more information on how much to water, and for how long the University of Minnesota has an in-depth guide.

Planting a tree is a wonderful way to celebrate Arbor Day and to honor the future. Share your Arbor Day activities with us by tagging @YardButler in your posts on social media!


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.