The East Texas Gardens


November marks Arbor Day in Texas and also the start of the perfect time for planting trees. Planting trees in East Texas between November and February almost guarantees success – as long as you plant correctly. The process starts with buying the right tree for that right spot in your yard. (Please note that in this article I’m referring to container trees, as those are typically the homeowner’s best option.)

Choose a tree recommended for our area – when in doubt, look to the tree selection tool on the Texas A&M web site,, for recommendations. If you want a tree with great fall color, you’re about a week late this year in picking it out at the nursery thanks to our early freezes. Fall foliage can vary a bit tree to tree, but the TAMU site will guide you to varieties with generally good fall color. Have the planting location in mind when you go shopping, and be sure to consider the mature size of the tree for that spot. Trees will grow more slowly when planted too close to another tree. Also ensure that the mature tree will not interfere with power lines, or the power company will ensure that as the tree grows (and it won’t be pretty). 

Dig a wide, shallow hole, two to three times the width of the tree’s container. (As you’re digging the hole, put the excavated soil on a tarp or in a container so you’ll have it handy to refill the hole.) I like to place the container where I want the tree, then dig all around it with my shovel perpendicular to the container. Once this outer ring is dug, I move the pot and dig the center of the hole no deeper than the root ball (not the height of the pot). You may have to remove soil or mulch from the top of the pot to expose the flare of the tree, where the trunk meets the roots. Take the tree out of the pot if necessary, and measure to be sure - you want to plant the tree, not bury it. The top of the root ball should be at or a bit above ground level when it’s planted. A tree planted too deeply will look like a telephone pole sticking out of the ground.

When the hole is dug, take your shovel and rough up the soil all the way around the sides - stab and twist, stab and twist; the rough edges make it easier for water and roots to penetrate. Finally, fill the hole with water to ensure there is good drainage; if the water doesn’t drain within a day, pick another spot. This is the one time I’m glad that the soil on my property is sugar sand; it’s easy to dig and drains well.

Now that the hole is ready for the tree, it’s time to get the tree ready for the hole. Remove the tree from the container and check the roots. If the roots circle the pot, you’ll need to sever them: cut an X across the bottom, then four evenly-spaced cuts up the side of the root ball (north, south, east and west). This will stop the roots from girdling the tree and killing it. If the tree isn’t root bound in the pot, then just tease the roots apart a bit to encourage the roots to grow outward.

Place the tree in the center of the hole and spread the roots out a bit. Ensure the root flare at the top of the root ball is at or a bit above the soil level. If the hole is too deep after loosening the roots, add some of the soil that you dug out into the center and stomp it down a bit – you want the bottom of the root ball on firm soil. Make sure the pretty side of the tree is facing forward and that the tree is upright. Backfill the hole with the original soil you dug out of the hole onto the tarp and water well to settle the roots in. Top the root ball with three to four inches of mulch, but keep it away from the trunk. Don’t stake or prune your tree at this time, except to remove damaged branches. That’s it – you’re done!

Since winters in east Texas are generally wet, you shouldn’t have to worry about watering till the summer heat – then water well every week to ten days. Following these steps, you should have success with the trees you plant in your east Texas garden.

About the author: Lin is garden manager for the Wood County Arboretum & Botanical Gardens in Quitman and is there each Wednesday from 9-noon, weather permitting. Stop by and meet her and the rest of the Guardians of the Garden. Email gardening questions to