Balled & Burlapped (B&B) Trees

Most landscape size trees are balled and burlapped, or just "B&B" as we call them in the nursery trade. Since soil weight averages 100 lbs per cubic foot, planting a B&B tree can be a formidable task which is best left for professional landscapers and nurserymen who have the right tools and heavy-duty equipment. Special tools are used for moving heavy trees. Metal "ball hooks" are used to grab onto the wire baskets, instead of using one's fingers.

Two-wheeled tree dollies are used to move B&B trees into place. Instead of having a squared-off nose like you find on a traditional freight dolly, tree dollies have a sturdy, rounded loop that slides beneath and cradles the earthen ball. Combined with know-how, these are some of the tools used in the nursery and landscaping trade.

B&B trees
Spring dug B&B deciduous trees at a tree nursery. Earthen balls are wrapped with burlap and further supported by metal baskets.
2016 Robert M. Donnan


Three important rules moving a B&B tree

  • Move the tree by lifting and pulling on the root ball instead of the trunk. It's easy to damage the fine feeder roots on a B&B plant by "yanking" on the stem!

  • When transporting the tree on the highway, if it has leaves or tender new growth, wrap the foliage with a burlap or mesh tarp to protect it from wind damage.  Drive slowly if possible.

  • Don't hurt yourself...

  • Watch your back while lifting a heavy B&B tree.

  • A tree can cause severe injuries or death if it falls on you! Don't use make-shift ramps than can slip away.

  • Watch out for "pinning nails" -- very sharp nails used by nurseries to hold the burlap wrapping in place.

  • Protect your eyes from getting poked by branches.

Heeled-in B&B Norway Spruce trees

Picking a location to plant a tree

Placement of the tree should consider it's growing requirements, eventual size, right-of-ways, easements, property lines and a few other factors.

  • Street right-of-ways may extend 15 feet or more into your lawn area.  What if sidewalks are added in the future.

  • Neighbors usually have the right to trim off branches extending over their property line. However, most property line projects should be discussed with affected neighbors out of common courtesy, even if you find your legal rights are intact.

  • Placement over a utility line that may later have to be excavated could mean the tree will have to be removed.

  • Most trees don't like "wet feet".  Is drainage adequate?

  • Evergreens will provide year around screening while deciduous trees only screen during the growing season.

  • Deciduous trees placed on the southern or western side of your house will help cool your house in the summer while still allowing sunlight through in the winter. A "win-win" situation!

  • Rows of evergreens will act as windbreaks against cold northwesterly winds in the winter.

  • Place trees to block undesirable views, but don't block good views and "vistas."

  • Check for buried utility lines, wires and underground hazards before you dig. Phone the "One Call" system which is free to homeowners.  Lamp post wires, landscape lighting wires, and "invisible dog fences" are usually very shallow and easy to cut, but you'll have to locate those yourself.

Redbud blossoms

Digging the tree planting hole

There's an old saying about digging a $100 hole for a $10 tree. This points to how important the planting hole can be. Good drainage is probably the most important factor of all --- tree roots need to "breathe" and won't tolerate prolonged soggy soil conditions that will suffocate roots. Certain species of trees will tolerate wet conditions better than others. 

Depth: Don't dig the hole any deeper than the root ball. The tree needs a solid foundation to sit on, as opposed to having loose soil which may later settle, causing the tree to sink and become crooked. 

Width: Dig the hole twice as wide as the root ball. If you are planting in poorly drained soil with heavy clay, cut a narrow ditch out of the low side of the hole. Backfill this ditch with looser soil that will allow drainage if the hole fills with water. If the ground is level, consider planting the tree with the ball elevated 1/3 of its height above the existing soil level, then sloping up soil around the elevated root ball. 

As with any science, there is ongoing plant research that often overturns old ideas and concepts. Tree science is no exception. A good example of this is when Dr. Shigo's research told us "not to paint" tree wounds.  If tree branches are properly removed they have natural defenses in the "collar" area.

Likewise, recent university research overturned some old concepts about transplanting trees.  The two most notable concepts deal with soil backfill and pruning.

Soil Backfill

Research indicates that trees will establish themselves better if planting holes are backfilled with the existing soil. "Improved" backfill (topsoil, peat moss, etc) may cause roots to want to "stay within" the existing root ball due to the differences in the soil type.

Thinning the crown

The old recommendation was to thin a tree after transplanting to compensate for the loss of roots during digging. Current recommendations call for only removing damaged or crossing branches. Some nurserymen we know still believe in thinning.

Staking a Tree

The rule of thumb for staking: Any tree over 6-feet tall should be staked for its first growing season. In especially windy or harsh situations it may be necessary to stake shorter trees as well, with the important point being that the tree is straight when it takes root in the soil. Most recommendations call for staking a tree so it can move slightly in the wind, the theory being that it will develop a stronger root system with this little bit of movement. Tree bark should be protected from wires and ties - short sections of old garden hose work well.

Two methods of staking. A third method involves using 3 short pegs placed equidistant around the tree with guy wires running up to the first set of branches.

Use tree wrap to protect the bark

You might also want to protect the bark on a young tree with specially made tree wrap, or one of the plastic spiral wraps, during its first growing season. These wraps are placed on the trunk of the tree, between the ground and the first set of branches.

IMPORTANT:  Whatever sort of bindings you use around a tree trunk, it's very important to check them periodically to ensure they are not girdling the tree trunk as it expands in diameter! We've seen many cases over the years where this sort of neglect has caused the eventual death of a tree, often times in commercial landscapes where no one is paying attention to new plantings after the first year.


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trimming trees

fertilizing trees

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salt tolerant trees


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