Think Spring! Tree Planting Guidelines for Schools

Even thought it is slushy and cold out, Arbor Day is only 2 months away! Time to start thinking about spring and planning outdoor activities.  Naturally, tree planting is our favorite spring activity.

Schools provide ideal locations for reforestation since they are publicly owned and often have large underutilized open areas for planting trees. Benefits of planting trees on school grounds include wildlife habitat, shading, soil stabilization, improved recreational opportunities and quality of life, educational opportunities, improved air quality, and reduced stormwater runoff.

Before you begin planting trees there are several pre-planting considerations:

  • How do I address concerns about vandalism, safety, liability and visibility?
  • Is there an opportunity to provide educational value?
  • How do I integrate trees with recreational uses such as ballfields and trails?
  • How do I prevent soils in the planting area from being compacted by foot traffic?
  • Is there an opportunity to create habitat for wildlife?
  • How do I address illegal dumping?
  • How do I manage invasive plants?
  • How do I address potential damage to trees from deer?
  • How do I address potential conflicts between trees and street lights, utilities, and pavement?

Selecting appropriate tree species is key because it can address most site conditions and is often more efficient than trying to change the site characteristics. Select a diverse mix of hardy, native species that are adapted to soils and site conditions.

Select species with similar growth rates when planting in groves (so they do not shade each other out). Limit use of understory trees and shrubs in areas where visibility and safety are important.

Other desirable species characteristics include the following:

  • Tolerates drought
  • Tolerates urban pollutants
  • Tolerates poor or compacted soils
  • Tolerates inundation (if used for stormwater treatment)
  • Large shade trees with a single leader than can be limbed up to 6 feet
  • Provides food, cover or nesting sites for birds, squirrels, and other wildlife
  • Reflects local character and culture

When organizing a tree planting project there are possible site preparations:

  • Clean up trash or other illegally dumped material
  • Remove invasive plants such as multiflora rose (may include mowing, cutting, or stump treatment)
  • Improve soil drainage if needed (e.g., amend with compost, mix soils to a depth of 6 to 18 inches)

Next you will need to determine the exact planting locations. It is very important to plant trees in the right place. Many people make the mistake of planting a small, young tree in an area it will eventually out grow. This can create issues with utilities and buildings and eventually result in having to remove the tree. To avoid unnecessary removal and ensure the trees will have the maximum amount of potential to grow into mature trees use the following guidelines:

  • Trees can be incorporated when developing landscaping plans for new schools. Select planting areas that are adjacent to existing forest or other natural areas or protect natural features such as streams.
  • Plant to provide shade around bleachers and ballfields. Use trees to create screen and boundaries between different areas.
  • Plant street trees or specimen trees around the perimeter of the site at spacing of 30 to 45 feet on center to allow mowing in between for invasive control.
  • Cluster trees to provide shared rooting space and an even  canopy, using species that grow at about the same rate so they don’t shade each other out. Do not include turf in tree clusters. Instead, use mulch rings and mow around the clusters.
  • Post signs to identify intentional plantings
  • Use small plant materials (e.g., seedlings, whips) where foot traffic is not an issue and larger stock elsewhere. Mix stock where both understory and canopy trees will be planted (e.g., use small understory stock and large canopy stock), or in tree clusters to protect seedlings (e.g., plant large stock around perimeter and seedlings in center).
  • Where potential liability from tree climbing is a concern, prune mature trees to the shoulder height of an adult and plant low shrubs or ground cover at tree base.
  • Plant only low growing herbaceous vegetation in areas where visibility is important for safety reasons or limb trees up to 8 feet in these areas to maintain visibility.
  • Plant trees where traffic is minimal, such as along fencelines. Protect trees and their critical root zone (generally a 25-foot radius) from foot traffic (soil compaction) by using recycled rubber or by directing foot traffic to certain areas using low metal fences, curbs, posts and chains, or porous pavers.

Maintenance of trees is another important factor to consider. It is strongly suggested to discuss maintenance and proper care of trees with whomever is responsible for that task. This way you avoid issues such as mowing damage or improper mulch techniques, all of which can restrict a tree’s ability to grow.

  • Plan for low maintenance of trees (frequent watering may not be feasible). When trees are first planted you could involve classrooms in watering. This would be a great opportunity to talk about the importance of trees and what we can do to care for them.
  • Use mulch to retain moisture and protect trees from mowers and foot traffic. Do not mulch deeper than 3 inches or build up mulch around tree trunks.
  • Mow around tree clusters, in setback areas, and other areas to maintain access, safety, and visibility.
  • Monitor and control invasive plants
  • Prune trees where necessary to maintain visibility and safety

Tree planting can be a community experience as well. Don’t be afraid to involve students, parents  and community organizations in the process. If your community has a designated forester that is another great resource to tap into. 

Reference:, Planting Trees on School Grounds


One response to this post.

  1. […] Plant Trees: Plantings trees in the right locations can help your school reduce energy expenses. Learn more. […]


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