Trees: Selection, Planting, and Care for a Perfect Tree

Choosing a Tree | Growing WeedsMy neighbors have maples, dogwoods, mulberries, an elm, and white pines in their yards.  The maples are slowly destroying the sidewalks, the dogwoods are damaging the siding of the nearby houses, the mulberries make a huge mess when the berries ripen, the elm is dying of Dutch Elm disease, and the pines release clouds of allergy-inducing pollen.  The only one of these trees that’s properly sited is the elm – and, unfortunately, that won’t be around much longer.

So what does it take to plant the right tree in the right place?

First, you need to know the environmental conditions of the area in which you want to plant – hardiness zone, type of soil (pH, organic matter, drainage), amount of sun, amount of wind, available space (e.g., proximity to houses, fences, electrical lines), etc. This will allow you to find a tree that’s suited to your conditions.  Planting an oak in the 6-foot space between suburban houses just isn’t going to work…

Then there’s the soil itself. There’s nothing natural about the highly disturbed soils found in urban areas. The soils are more compacted, more alkaline, lower in fertility, lack organic matter, and have a different composition of soil organisms than would be found in a tree’s natural habitat. Urban trees are also isolated from other trees and instead are surrounded by a sea of over-fertilized turfgrass. Nothing natural about it at all.

So, before you even buy a tree, take a soil sample in the area where you’re going to plant your tree. You may need to add amendments to modify the pH and increase the proportion of organic matter in the soil (ideally, it should be around 5%).

Please don’t plant a lone tree in the middle of the lawn. Not only does this look unnatural, but the constant watering and fertilizing of the grass encourages fungal and disease problems in the tree. Mowing and using a string trimmer on the grass around the trunk damages the bark, leaving entry wounds for all kinds of harmful pests and pathogens.

Understand the mature size of the tree. That perfect little cherry tree may turn out to be a 60′ foot monster, rather than the 15′ specimen you envisioned. And don’t forget the spread – a dwarf Alberta spruce planted next to your front porch will soon cover the stairs with it’s prickly branches.

Choose a tree that grows well in your conditions. Be honest about your site. For example, understand how much sun you really have. Four hours in the morning is not “full sun”. If you’ve always wanted a copper beech but live in an area with clay soil and overhanging electrical lines, look for something else.

In the end, it’s really all about the tree.  Do what’s right for the tree and it will reward you with many years of healthy growth.

Proper Tree Planting Techniques

“We have seen thousands of fine trees planted with a few dry roots crowded into a little hole scooped out of sod and covered with the same. This is called planting? When will such abomination cease?” – H. Garrison (1875). Illinois State Hort. Soc. 9: 366-371.

Planting a Tree | Growing WeedsYou may have heard the expression “Plant a $5 tree in a $100 hole.”  These days, you’re unlikely to find a healthy $5 tree for sale, but the key point of the message still holds – plant the tree properly!  If you mess up this step, it doesn’t matter what else you do – the tree is doomed.

Improper planting technique is the most common reason why transplanted trees die.  Usually, it’s because the tree was planted too deeply.

Most of our ornamental trees are budded (a process where a single bud of the desired cultivar is placed on the seedling rootstock and allowed to grow).  Budding is usually done about 2″ to 3″ above the ground so be sure that the slight crook in the trunk left over from this process is above the ground.

Don’t plant at the same depth you found the tree in the container! Many containerized trees (and even many that are balled and burlaped) are placed into the container too deep. This is done to help improve stability while in the nursery or garden center (it’s hard to sell trees that keep falling out of their container). In the short term, the tree can survive this; container soils are usually well-drained. But when you transplant the tree, don’t think that “if that’s how it was planted in the container, then that’s how I should plant it in the ground.”

Look for the trunk flare – the base of the trunk where it starts to get wider, just above the roots. You want that to be just above the soil surface – you should see it when the tree is planted.

Dig the hole about 2 to 3 times wider than the container or root ball. The roots need to be able to easily penetrate into the surrounding soil to help stabilize the tree and take up water and nutrients. If the planting hole is too small, the roots can start growing around in circles instead of spreading out; girdling like this eventually kills the tree.

Dig the planting hole only as deep as the root ball. This is not the time to “fluff up the dirt”. You want the soil under the tree to be undisturbed to provide a solid foundation for the tree so that, over time, the tree doesn’t sink lower into the ground. If in doubt about depth, err on the side of shallower is better. Planting high is better than planting deep.

Caring for a Newly Transplanted Tree

Caring for Trees | Growing WeedsThere are only three things you need to do to a tree that’s just been planted: mulch, stake (if necessary), and water.  That’s it. How hard could that be? Well, you’d be surprised how many people mess it up…

Mulch – Trees are no different than other plants – they’ll benefit from a nice layer of mulch.  Not only does mulch conserve moisture and keep soil temperatures lower during the hot summer months, but it eliminates competition for resources from weeds and grass.  And, in the case of trees, it provides a nice buffer around the tree to protect it from “mower blight” or “string trimmer flagellation”. Just be careful to keep the mulch away from the base of the tree – no “mulch volcanoes” allowed!

Staking – Contrary to popular belief, staking is generally not necessary. But, if you absolutely must do it, do it right. Use two wooden stakes (not metal ones), one on either side of the tree. Tie the tree using a wide cloth strap that is loosely tied.  Don’t use wire, nylon cord, or anything else that can bite into the bark. And don’t tie it too tightly – the tree should still be able to move slightly. This slight movement will help to generate stronger roots and, in the case of high winds, the tree is less likely to snap off. Which brings up another point – tie the tree at about 1/2 of its height; any lower and you’ll end up with a giant lever, with the canopy moving around in the wind and eventually lifting the roots straight up into the air (usually with an explosion of dirt and mulch). Remove the stakes at the end of the first growing season.

Watering – In most areas, a newly-planted tree needs about 1 gallon of water per inch of tree trunk diameter.  As for how long to keep up the watering routine, here are some general guidelines

  • For a trunk diameter of less than 2″, water daily for 2 weeks, then weekly until the tree is established.
  • For a trunk diameter of 2″ to 4″, water daily for 1 month, then weekly
  • For anything larger than 4″, water daily for 6 weeks, then weekly

And, generally speaking, that’s it.  As with anything that’s been newly planted, keep an eye on your new tree for insect or disease problems (which are more common when the plant is stressed, like when it’s been transplanted) and make sure the soil isn’t settling or the roots popping up.  And, of course, make sure the tree is properly planted!

Four Reasons Newly Planted Trees Die

We’ve all seen it happen – a beautiful specimen tree newly planted in the ‘perfect spot’ slowly declines, drops its leaves, and dies.  It can be heartbreaking to watch. And the saddest part of all is that it’s usually entirely preventable.

A transplanted tree usually dies as a result of one of four dominant factors:

  • Not matching the requirements of the tree to the site conditions (i.e., wrong tree in the wrong spot)
  • Buying and planting a poor quality tree (“It was on sale!” is not a good reason to buy a sub-standard tree)
  • Improper planting technique (usually, this is a case of planting the tree too deeply)
  • Lack of care after transplanting (there’s no such thing as a “no-maintenance” transplant)

Really, it’s not all that hard to grow a tree. But it’s surprising how many people treat trees like annuals – buy a pretty specimen, shove it in the ground, pour on the fertilizer, give it some water, and expect it to put on a show all summer. And then they wonder why the tree is dead the next spring…

With a little knowledge, anyone can grow a gorgeous tree that will live a long and healthy life.

How about you – do you have any stories about tree selection, planting, or care gone wrong? Share it with us – just Submit a Story!

2 Comments on Trees: Selection, Planting, and Care for a Perfect Tree

  1. Thanks for sharing this advice on caring for trees. I agree that it is really important to choose a tree that can grow to its full size in your yard. If you don’t, then you are increasing the chances that it will die from a lack of nutrients. It is probably better to be safe rather than sorry when you are choosing the type of tree you want.

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