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.

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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.

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.

Common Abiotic Tree Problems

Physical damage to your trees can be more detrimental than other types of damage because open wounds are prime targets for pest infestations and diseases.

Sunscald Damage on an Aspen Tree
Sunscald Damage

Sunscald/Frost Splitting

In the winter when temperatures fluctuate between warm and cold, young and/or weak trees are susceptible to sunscald. Sunscald causes bark on the trunk to split or peel back. This happens when warm weather heats up winter-dormant cells in the tree, causing them to come out of hibernation while the weather is still inconsistent. If winter-dormant cells come out of hibernation too soon, the bark can split when the temperatures reach freezing again at night.

To help prevent sunscald, you can try painting the trunk with white latex paint to reflect the light away. This should help prevent the tree from becoming too warm on sunny days, which means it will stay dormant until the right time. However, avoid doing this if your tree has damaged bark because it may damage it further.

Check out our video for more information:

Damage From Machinery

Machines like lawnmowers and aerators can cause serious damage to tree trunks (especially trees with soft bark), so be careful around your trees when you use any type of machinery. Even using heavy equipment nearby can cause soil compaction and be potentially damaging to the root system of the tree.

Watering Damage (drought in winter)

As with any plant, both overwatering and underwatering can be equally detrimental to a tree. If you over-water, the roots won’t get the oxygen they need from the soil. Conversely, if the tree doesn’t get the water it needs, it goes into a drought-like state.

To properly water your tree, soak it well so the water can penetrate deep into the soil, but avoid watering too often. Spaced-out, deep watering sessions following the tree’s drip line are best.

Summer Scorch/ Leaf Damage

Summer Leaf Scorch
Summer Scorch

Summer scorch causes leaves (or needles) to turn brown around the outside. This often happens when summer temperatures increase and when hot winds dry out the leaves. The best way to prevent summer scorch is to deep water throughout the summer.

To deep water, place your hose on the ground at the tree’s dripline (the dripline is where the leaf canopy naturally ends), and leave it for a few minutes. Move the hose every three feet along the dripline and leave it for a few minutes at each location. This should give the tree plenty of moisture to help it through extreme temperatures.

Damage from Road Salt 

When people put salt down in the winter to help melt the snow, sometimes high quantities of it can end up in the soil near trees. This can cause damage to foliage that looks similar to summer scorch, but it can eventually kill the tree. If your tree begins to show signs of salt damage, water it well to make up for the moisture loss from the salt in the soil.

Damage from Tree Wraps

Sometimes people wrap their trees to protect them from the elements. However, this can do more harm than good to your tree. Tree wraps can block out moisture and weaken the tree, causing more problems with insects and disease. Protective tree wraps can also hinder growth and damage bark layers—causing extensive damage that can kill the tree.

Circling/Girdling Roots

If trees are planted too deep in the soil, girdling roots may grow tightly around the trunk of the tree in an effort to breathe. This prevents the tree from taking in water and nutrients it needs from the root system and can suffocate a tree over time.

Girdling roots can also develop if a root-bound tree is transplanted straight from the container. When young trees spend an extended amount of time in a pot before being transplanted, their roots try to grow as much as possible, but being confined to the pot, all they can do is wrap around themselves.

So, when transplanting, be sure to break up the roots (you may have to cut some of them) before planting the tree. This will help prevent your tree from developing girdling roots and choking itself out.

Iron Chlorosis
Iron Chlorosis

Iron Chlorosis

Iron chlorosis causes leaves to turn yellow and die in the summer, months before they normally would. What’s worse is that years of severe iron chlorosis damage can eventually kill the tree. Iron chlorosis is especially common in maple trees in Utah because the iron in our soil is too difficult for the trees to soak up. Chelated iron (a form of iron that trees can intake more easily) injections are usually needed to help trees recover from iron chlorosis.


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 today!