A Guide to Basic Tree Care in Utah

Are you wondering how to properly care for your tree? Or how to protect it from physical damage? Trees can easily be damaged by abrupt temperature changes, incorrect watering, and more. Learn how to prevent injury to your tree and what you can do to strengthen and properly care for your tree—even after it has been damaged. With a little bit of effort, your tree will flourish for many years.

Jump to a section:

How to Plant a Tree
How to Plant a Tree

When planting or transplanting a tree, make sure it is securely placed in the soil at the correct depth and watered well so it can take root.

  1. Measure the distance from the bottom of the root ball to the trunk flare (or root collar).
  2. Dig a hole shallow enough that the trunk flare will be visible above the ground. Make the hole about twice as wide as it is deep.
  3. Lift the tree by the root ball and gently place it into the hole. Cut away the wrapping or container and try to separate any roots that are tightly woven. You may have to cut the roots in places to help loosen the root ball if the roots are tightly matted together.
  4. Fill the hole with nutrient-rich soil, gently packing it in. Make sure the trunk flare is completely visible above the soil.
  5. Water the whole area well, letting it soak in.
  6. Add mulch (2-4 inches deep) to the surface, but leave the trunk flare and a small circle about 6 inches all around the tree uncovered to allow the roots to breathe.
  7. Staking small trees can be a good idea (especially in windy areas) to help keep the tree stable until the roots have a chance to anchor deep.
  8. When staking a tree, make sure the tie downs are not too tight on the trunk so the tree has room to grow, and remove the ties as soon as the tree roots are securely anchored.

Things to Avoid When Planting a Tree

  • Avoid planting the tree too deep in the soil. The trunk flare should be visible above the soil after transplanting the tree.
  • Avoid transplanting a root-bound tree. If the roots have circled tightly around themselves in the pot, make sure you cut and loosen them a little before transplanting to allow the roots to grow out into the soil. If you skip this step, the roots will continue to grow around themselves, and eventually, the tree will choke itself out.
  • Avoid lifting the tree by the trunk and keep the roots moist during the transplanting process. Allowing the roots to dry out during transplanting can damage the tree.

Anatomy of a Tree

Basic Tree Anatomy

To care for your tree well, you should learn the basic parts of the tree. The basic anatomy of a tree is simple: the crown of the tree is the part of the tree with foliage and branches that connects to the trunk. The trunk of the tree merges into the root collar (or the trunk flare), which then leads to the root system of the tree.

If you cut down a tree, you’ll see a few important layers: the heartwood, sapwood, cambium, inner bark, and outer bark.

The heartwood is the strong, stabilizing center of the tree. The cells in this layer are dead, but vital to the stability of the tree.

Medullary rays run across the layers and transfer nutrients between them.

The sapwood (xylem layer) brings sap and nutrients from the roots to the leaves so the leaves can combine the sap nutrients with other nutrients from the air and sun, converting the nutrients to energy for the tree. When the tree grows new sapwood, cells in the older, inner sapwood layers die and become heartwood.

The cambium layer is next. The cambium layer builds new xylem and phloem cells so the tree can disperse nutrients throughout its layers and grow. The inner bark (phloem) layer connects to the cambium layer and helps disperse nutrients throughout the tree. When phloem cells die, they become part of the outer bark layer. The outer bark layer protects the tree from outside damage.

How to Tell if Your Tree is Healthy

Your trees need check-ups just like you or your pets do. Periodically examine your trees to ensure they are healthy and growing well.

  1. Check any visible surface roots and the root collar of the tree for any physical damage, unnatural growths, or spongey spots. Roots should be smooth and firm.
  2. Check the trunk for open wounds and signs of fungal growth. The tree trunk should be normally colored and free of sores and odd growths.
  3. Check the crown of the tree for broken branches, discolored leaves, and uneven growth. Tree leaves should be green and evenly dispersed throughout the tree branches.

Check the Roots of the Tree

Work from the bottom up when examining your tree because healthy trees usually have healthy roots. Check any surface roots for signs of unnatural growth, soft spots, and fungi. Surface tree roots should be firm, sturdy, and dark or light brown (depending on the type of tree).

Soft, oddly colored spots may indicate disease or insect problems. If you encounter these types of abnormalities, contact an arborist as soon as possible.

Check the Root Collar

The root collar should be visible slightly above the soil line. Look for missing or damaged bark (especially holes and sap) and other signs of decay on the root collar. This part of the tree should be firm and normally colored.

When planting your tree, make sure you don’t plant it too deep in the soil. The root collar of the tree needs to breathe above the ground; when trees are planted too deep, girdling roots may develop to allow the roots to breathe. Girdling roots are dangerous because they circle the base of the tree, eventually choking it out.

Trees that are root-bound or planted too deep are also more likely to suffer from insect infestations and fungal infections. If you suspect that your tree is root-bound or suffering from a root disease, try gently moving it back and forth. If the whole tree shifts in the soil, it likely has a weak or rotting root system. At this point, call an arborist to see if the tree is savable.

Examine the Trunk

Aspen Borer Bug Damage
Aspen Borer Bug Damage

Check the trunk for moss and signs of fungal growth. The presence of moss on the trunk generally indicates excessive moisture. It doesn’t directly harm the tree, but it adds extra weight that can damage weak trees under the right conditions.

Fungi, on the other hand, can cause large cankers on the tree. They may also cause the bark to look oddly colored and to fall off in serious cases.

Be sure to check for open wounds on the trunk as well. Open wounds allow insects and fungi to penetrate into the tree, leaving it vulnerable to a host of different diseases. When doing lawn care and other yard work, be careful to avoid damaging any part of the tree—especially the trunk.

Check for holes in the trunk as well. If your tree has holes in the lower half of the trunk or is leaking sap, you may have a borer bug problem. Borers can quickly cause devastating damage to trees, so call an arborist as soon as you notice signs of borers.

Check the Branches (especially the central leader)

Inspect the branches of the tree for bare patches and broken branches. Broken branches can leave open wounds that weaken the tree and allow pests and diseases to invade. Also examine the main branch to ensure it is growing correctly, and look for any abnormal growths or unusual coloring.

Pruning correctly will help prevent branches from breaking at odd angles and will allow the central leading branch to guide the tree’s growth. Most types of trees should be pruned so there is only one main leading branch. This will allow the tree to grow strong and tall instead of wide and uneven.

However, some trees—varieties of bonsai and fruit trees—are meant to have more than one central branch. Make sure you follow the recommended pruning methods for your tree!

Check for Yearly Growth

Use a tape measure to determine how much the circumference of the tree grows each year. If your tree is growing larger each year, it’s probably healthy. If your tree stops growing, this usually indicates that it is unhealthy and needs nutrients.

Check Tree Leaves and Smaller Branches

The leaves of the tree are one of the most important indicators of tree health. Check the leaves for proper color, shape, and size. Many tree pests eat at leaves, creating holes and scalloped edges. Some diseases cause leaves to turn yellow, brown, or black and stunt tree growth.

If the leaves start to turn brown around the edges, they may be suffering from drought stress. In this case, the tree will need to be watered deeply.

Basic Tree Care

Proper tree care is vital to the health of your tree. Two important tree care principles in Utah are proper watering and fertilization. Deep watering ensures that your tree roots will reach the water they need, which is vital in Utah because of our dry climate.

Fertilization is also vital because many trees in Utah suffer from iron chlorosis, an iron deficiency that results from bad soil conditions. To help combat iron chlorosis and drought stress, deep water your trees and give them root fertilization treatments. Stewart’s Tree Service offers fertilization treatments for iron chlorosis and other treatments for sick trees. Call or text our office at 801-226-2261 for more information.

Deep Watering Evergreen Trees and Deciduous Trees

Deep Water Evergreens
Water-deficient Evergreens

Deep-water your tree in the fall before winter hits and in the summer when trees struggle with drought conditions in Utah. Deep watering your tree will ensure that it stays healthy even during harsh weather conditions.

Follow these steps to deep water your tree:

  1. Turn the hose on low
  2. Place it on the ground at the tree’s drip line (the circumference around the outermost branches of the tree)
  3. Water the area for about 10 minutes
  4. Following the drip line, move the hose in a circular pattern around the tree (each time move the hose about 3 to 5 feet)
  5. For large trees, water in a circle around the tree once more, but this time move a few steps closer to the tree and water in a smaller circle.

Tree Fertilization

Well-established trees thrive with periodical fertilization but wait to fertilize your trees until at least two or three years after planting. Once your trees have taken root, try to fertilize them about once or twice a year in the early spring and fall.


Whether your tree is young or old, it will benefit from these care suggestions. If your tree is struggling, or if you have questions about proper tree care, call our office at 801-226-2261 to speak with one of our ISA-certified arborists and get a free service quote today!