How To Plant a Desert Tree

Thanks to Charlie and Jeau Allen of Aravaipa Heirlooms for compiling this resource!

Once you have selected a native tree to add to your landscape, consider the following guidelines to ensure proper planting for a
healthy and vigorous tree.

When to Plant

In the Sonoran Desert, while container-grown trees can be planted year-round, fall, early winter, and spring are optimal times to plant. If you will be planting in the severe heat of the summer months, it is critical to water in your plant promptly and properly. More-frequent watering is necessary to prevent rapid drying, especially during windy days. Planting during colder months is usually successful, but it is not advisable to plant if a freeze warning has been issued. Frost-damage prevention may be necessary while the newly planted tree becomes hardened off (if hardening off was not previously done at the nursery).

How to Plant

First, determine where your new tree will be placed. Some factors to consider are:

  • Is the tree deciduous?
  • How long will it take to reach maturity?
  • How large will it grow?
  • Will the tree drop leaf litter, flowers, seeds or fruit pods?
  • Will the tree draw wildlife, or will it invite pests?
  • How will the tree’s shade pattern through the cycle of seasons affect things such as buildings, the view, or growth of other plants in the vicinity?

Make sure the tree is not planted underneath roof lines or overhead utility lines. Ensure that there are no underground conflicts such as utility lines, pipes, or foundations. Call your local Blue Stake (or other Dig Safe) provider for help locating underground utilities on your property.

A proper tree-planting hole should be three to five times the diameter of the tree container, and should be even with the bottom of the container (the ground level in the container should be even with the ground where the tree is to be planted). If caliche or other hard pan is found at the bottom of your planting hole, it may be necessary to punch a hole through it to soil beneath that has better percolation properties in order to allow adequate drainage. If you are not sure whether you have a caliche problem, try filling your hole with water. If it doesn’t drain within an hour, caliche is a likely culprit.

Native trees typically do not require soil amendments to be added to the surrounding soil. Simply remove large rocks and use the excavate to backfill the tree. Under severely rocky conditions, you may need to add native top soil. To remove the tree from a typical five- or fifteen-gallon container, gently loosen the rootball by squeezing the container. Gently slide the rootball from the container. Care must be taken not to disturb the rootball or to dislodge soil from the roots. If the rootball is too loose, cut the container from the plant while it is in the hole. Use some sturdy shears to cut down the sides of the container to remove it. Making sure that the plant is upright and secure, begin by backfilling around all sides of the rootball, stopping about halfway in order to water. Wet the soil, but don’t water so much that you form a slurry. Continue backfilling until the top of the rootball is reached. Any remaining soil can be used to create a basin at the outer edge of the excavation where water can collect from runoff or water harvesting.

Special Considerations

If any problems reveal themselves once the tree is removed from the container, this is the time to address them. Do not plant any
specimens that show signs of root girdling, grubs, ants or other pests, or any sign of disease.

Once your tree is planted, remove any nursery stakes. Properly reinstall them if the tree needs support. Do not over-support the
tree, as it should be allowed to sway a little to stimulate healthy trunk growth.

Determine your new tree’s watering needs. Generally, native desert trees will need less-frequent watering as they mature. Make sure that any supplemental irrigation is modified as needed to keep the water at the edge of the root zone, so that the roots are encouraged to grow far and wide to provide a strong base of support for the tree. Enjoy your new tree with the shade, food, and wildlife that it provides!

Funds for this project were provided by the Urban and Community Forestry Financial Assistance Program administered through the State of Arizona Forestry Division – Urban and Community Forestry and the USDA Forest Service.