How NOT to Plant a Tree on Arbor Day

Planting trees helps battle climate change and improves your local environment, but be sure you’re planting the right ones in the right ways.

By Debbie Wolfe | Published Apr 19, 2022 5:31 PM

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How to NOT Plant a Tree on Arbor Day


The first Arbor Day celebration occurred in Nebraska on April 10, 1872. More than 1 million trees were planted in the state on that day. By 1920, at least 45 states and territories were celebrating Arbor Day. Today, the official day to celebrate trees in the United States is on the last Friday in April. Many communities culminate this day by organizing large-scale tree planting events. Planting a tree is a wonderful way to mitigate the climate crisis and beautify your community, right? Well, not always.

A healthy tree does help absorb negative emissions, filter water, and provide shade and habitat for various wildlife. Although planting a tree is considered a planet-positive activity, there are instances when planting one can have negative effects. Before you plant a tree this Arbor Day (or Earth Day, always April 22), consider the possible reasons why you might not, what tree to choose or what to plant instead, and how to plant a tree properly.

Get to Know Your Biome

A biome is a large area characterized by vegetation, soil, climate, and wildlife. There are five major biomes: aquatic, grassland, forest, desert, and tundra. “You need to have the right tree in the right place,” says Dr. Douglas Tallamy, professor, conservationist, and author of The Nature of Oaks, “That means you have to appreciate what biome you live in.”

If you live in the high plains region where there are naturally no trees, planting a tree will use valuable water resources. Grassland biomes aren’t meant to support large vegetation. “You’re just robbing Peter to pay Paul, all to put a tree where it doesn’t belong—that’s not sustainable,” says Tallamy. So embrace the plants that are native to your biome, even if they are not trees.

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Plant a Contributor

How to NOT Plant a Tree on Arbor Day


If your biome naturally supports trees, it’s best to plant a native species, right? Dr. Tallamy says sort of. “I like the term contributor and noncontributor,” says Tallamy, “Plant the plants that will contribute to the ecosystem in which you live.” What does that mean, exactly?

Most people understand that trees and plants create oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide (CO2). However, they are much more than large air filters. “One of the major things that trees do is turn sunlight into food for animals,” explains Tallamy. “If the animals can’t eat that tree then that’s a failed ecosystem function.”

Species native to an area are the best for their intended biome, but not all native species are contributors. “Insects are the primary means by which energy is taken from trees and given to animals,” says Tallamy. However, some people may think that having a tree that no insect will touch is a good thing, not realizing that it means the tree is an ecological dead end.


The good news is that there’s room for compromise in a biome. “Up to 30 percent of the tree biomass in your yard can be non-native or noncontributing trees and plants, but none should be an invasive species,” says Tallamy. Making sure that 70 percent of the trees—and other plants—in your yard are contributors will keep your local biome in good health.

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Finding the Right Tree (or Plant)

How to NOT Plant a Tree on Arbor Day


Planting a native, contributing species is best, but how do you find one? Thankfully, some organizations specialize in this topic and will help you find the best species for your zone.

“You can go to native plant finder on the National Wildlife Federation website and find out the best woody plants and herbaceous plants for your county anywhere in the country,” Tallamy suggests.

Remember that Arbor Day doesn’t have to be solely about planting trees. There are numerous shrubs and flowering perennial plants that are contributors to their native biomes. If you want to take the guesswork out of plant selection, look at the Garden For Wildlife collection of native plants available in 36 states or search for your state’s native plant society. We can all be part of the solution to restore native habitats with one plant choice.

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How to Plant a Tree

How to NOT Plant a Tree on Arbor Day


If your biome supports a tree, then get planting! “When you plant a tree, you get to reap the benefits of trees all year long,” says Chris Plante, District Manager at Davey Tree. “Trees do a lot more than clean the air and save lives; they save you money, too, by lowering energy costs.” Follow these expert tips from Davey Tree:

  • Pick the right spot. “Consider the amount of sunlight, competing ground vegetation, and ground hazards, like wires or pipes,” says Plante, “ Most importantly, plan enough space for your new tree to grow.”
  • Select the right time of year. “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago,” jokes Plante, “The second best is this spring or fall.”
  • Make the planting hole two to three times wider than the root ball. “This will allow the new tree’s roots to spread out,” explains Plante, “The point where the tree comes out of the ground should be ½ inch higher than the ground around it so that water won’t collect at the tree’s trunk.”
  • Water regularly. Help your tree thrive during its first few years by watering it. “One inch of rainfall equates to 625 gallons of water per 1,000 square feet,” says Plante.
  • Mulch, mulch, mulch! Cover the planting hole with 1 to 3 inches of shredded hardwood or leaf mulch up to the trunk. “But do not over-mulch the tree or ‘volcano’ mulch,” warns Plante. (Volcano mulching involves piling a high layer or mulch against the trunk.)