Sharpen the shovels and break out the mulch because Friday is Arbor Day in South Carolina.

First observed in the Palmetto State in 1934, this national holiday is celebrated in each state according to the best planting time for the area, and early December is the perfect time to plant a tree in South Carolina.

Arbor Day founder J. Sterling Morton was a Nebraska pioneer, agriculturist and newspaperman. Through his articles in the local paper, he enthusiastically endorsed tree planting as a way of stabilizing soil, shading homes and blocking harsh prairie winds. Then as now, trees are used for screening homes from wind and noise, providing cleaner air, conserving water, reducing soil erosion and moderating temperatures.

There are many things to consider when choosing and planting a tree. Clemson Extension offers in-depth information on selecting, planting and caring for specific landscape trees at the Home & Garden Information Center website, www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic.

The nonprofit organization Trees SC “fosters the stewardship of South Carolina’s urban and community forests” by providing online resources at www.treessc.org.

Another booklet, Familiar Trees of South Carolina, originally written in 1950 and updated over the years, is a good place to start learning the basics. With its simple line drawings, the publication illustrates 60 native trees of South Carolina. According to the authors, the manual was written to “help stimulate observation and arouse interest and appreciation of trees, one of South Carolina’s most important renewable natural resources.” Download a free copy at www.clemson.edu/extfor/publications/bul117/bul117.pdf.

Below are some tips for planting trees correctly to help ensure a long-lived, healthy specimen:

Small trees withstand transplanting and adapt better to less-than-ideal conditions. Choose trees with plump white roots in containers you can handle without injuring yourself or the tree.

Avoid placing compost or fertilizer in the bottom of the planting hole. Amend the entire planting area with compost; as you dig the hole, the compost mixes with the backfill. Fertilize in spring or early summer, based on soil test results.

Inspect the root ball before planting. Manually spread out the roots so they are more horizontal than vertical. Cut any roots that encircle the root ball with a knife or saw. This stimulates the development of a strong, branching root system that will anchor trees in the ground.

Planting at the proper depth is critical. The most frequent cause of tree death that we see in the extension office is planting too deep. It is often unnoticed for years until the tree finally dies.

Once the tree is out of the container, follow the trunk down to the top of the soil and look for the root flare, where the trunk widens at the base, then remove soil from the flare until it is visible. Use the flare as your guide to proper planting depth. The root flare should remain above the soil line at all times. Bark that is in contact with the soil will become diseased and ultimately girdle the tree until it dies. Trees should never have the appearance of a telephone pole stuck in the ground.

Roots need oxygen to function, so you should never stomp on the soil with your foot when planting a tree. Water in the tree well to settle the soil and remove larger air pockets for best results.

Mulch with an organic material such as leaves, shredded bark or pine straw. Maintain a mulch-free space 2 to 3 inches from the trunk and apply mulch 2 to 3 inches deep out to the drip line, never allowing the mulch to touch the bark of the tree. “Volcano mulching” will ultimately cause the bark to rot and girdling, and the tree will die. Mulch touching tree bark should be removed.

Tree roots continue to grow even in winter, so water even if it is cold outside.

Last year, more than 120,000 trees were planted in South Carolina in honor of Arbor Day. Get involved in tree planting this year, whether in your own yard or through a local event. If you would like more information on events, go to the Post & Courier Garden Calendar or to www.arborday.org.

Amy L. Dabbs is the urban horticulture extension agent and Tri-County Master Gardener coordinator for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension. Send questions to gardening@postandcourier.com.