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Tree Planting 101


Q: Hi Mike: We just bought two 10-foot tall maple trees. What's the best way to plant and care for them so they'll thrive? Thanks!
    ---Joe and Jen in Hyatts ville, MD
A. Fall is my favorite time to buy and plant new trees. Bargains abound (your local garden center needs the room for their giant inflatable Homer Simpson Santa displays) and trees (and shrubs) do really well with fall planting; much better than when they go into the ground in the Spring. (MY Arbor Day would be in September or October; not April!)

If they're balled and burlaped, remove and discard all the wrappings; plastic, metal and burlap. (I don't care what you read online about leaving the burlap in the ground; take it off! Then save and use it to make a windbreak for some of your more sensitive plants.)

If the trees are in big pots, turn them on their sides and gently roll and tap until you can wiggle them out. Some wags suggest cutting the pots off, but I would never destroy a nice big container; and reusing those containers makes their plastic more environmentally friendly. I use big containers like that to pot up my rosemary so I can bring those (not winter hardy in my region) plants inside till Spring.

Dig the holes wide, but not deep. I know we 'think' that deep planting will keep the poor widdle trees warm and cozy over the winter, but the opposite is true; they need to be planted at the same height as in their pots or at the nursery. Deep planting kills a lot of trees. If you're uncertain of their original planting height, just make sure that you can see the root flare of the tree when you're done, not a lollipop sticking out of the ground. If in doubt, plant higher rather than lower. But don't skimp on the width part when you dig; the further from the hole you break up the soil, the more stable the adult tree will be.

Breaking up the root ball a little bit will help move those roots out of the circle of soil they've been forced to grow in so far. But it could also stress the tree. So be gentle; break open that dirt a little, but keep most of it in place. Then refill the hole with the same soil you removed—not compost, peat moss, etc. Yes, enriching the soil inside the planting hole did use to be the standard advice, but numerous studies have found that planting in a little island of rich soil actually impedes root growth; the roots just stay in that nice stuff and don't want to venture into your nasty native dirt. So practice Tough Tree Love and force those roots out into your nasty native soil. That's how to make a nice stable tree. Tamp the soil down gently, with basic hand pressure. No stomping! And no water in the hole itself; that would displace vital oxygen and cause the tree to shift.

Then spread an inch of compost on top of the soil, beginning six inches away from the trunk. No mulch should EVER touch a tree or shrub. (Those mounded trees you see all over are headed for an early grave.) Carry that 'compost circle' twice as far out as you expect the canopy to grow the first year. This will gently feed the trees when they wake up in Spring and keep down weeds. It is very important to mulch away weeds for the first few years so that your young trees aren't competing for food and moisture.

And that means 'yes'; you mulch lovers can then spread an inch of wood or bark mulch over top of the compost after your soil freezes hard for the first time. Yes, I rarely recommend wood mulch, but in this case, it will help prevent your new plantings from "heaving"—popping out of the ground during the freeze/thaw cycles of winter.

BUT:
  • Do NOT use wood mulch within 30 feet of a home, car, or anything else you don't want irrevocably stained by artillery fungus (see this PREVIOUS QUESTION OF THE WEEK for details on this and the many other dangers of wood mulch). If your new trees are closer than 30 feet, use another inch of compost instead.
  • Do NOT use wood mulch without that inch of compost underneath. Wood mulch alone would starve the young trees to death.
  • Do NOT spread it any deeper than an inch. More than two inches of mulch total would prevent the passage of air and water.
  • Do NOT touch the trunk with ANY mulch. If you MUST landscape with volcano-mound 'Tributes to Pele', stop gardening and take up a hobby where your Control Freak/Martha Stewart Syndrome won't kill helpless plants! Thank you.
  • And yes, you really do need to wait until after the soil freezes hard to apply the mulch. Mulch can't keep your soil warm in winter; we apply mulch on frozen soil to keep it frozen and thus protect the mulched plants from Mother Nature's menopausal mood swings.
Water is a little trickier. In the Spring, let a hose gently and slowly drip (not gush!) at the base of newly planted trees for a full 24 hours the first day and then several hours every day until we get rain. Then make sure the trees never go a week without water (from rain or you) their first Spring and Summer. Make that 'never go five days' if it's been really warm; and water even more frequently if you have sandy soil or are living through a real Al Gore Scorcher. It's hard to over water in the Spring and summer, when trees are actively growing and using lots of moisture. And the biggest cause of young tree death is too little water their first couple of seasons in the ground.

But those same trees are going dormant in the Fall and using very little water; so a couple hours of drip right after planting should be enough for the first few days. Then a few hours of drip every week we don't get rain until the ground freezes. Then be ready to 'water for Spring' as soon as you see new growth next season. Again, the biggest cause of lost trees is lack of water during their formative years; and its easy to forget that what now seems like an established tree is actually about to experience the first summer heat of its life at your home.

I do NOT recommend staking; rub away a circle of bark with your good intentions and your big investment becomes expensive firewood. If your area is really windy, protect newly planted trees with a windbreak instead; you'll need one in a windy area anyway to prevent winter's desiccating winds from drying the poor trees to death. Pound some stakes in the ground at least a foot away from the trees and wrap burlap around the stakes. Don't drape plants directly with burlap and don't cover the top; that's not how it works. In normal areas, no winter protection is required for normal trees; that is, trees that are winter hardy for your zone. Planting figs in upstate New York is a whole other story.

But DO protect that yummy, tasty, tender young bark from deer, rabbits and other winter nibblers with inexpensive tree guards. You can try and make your own from chicken wire or hardware cloth, but I don't recommend it; it's very easy to damage the bark when you apply it and/or when deer rub against it (turning your clever home-made protection into a tree grater!). Although I try and avoid plastic in general, I use flexible plastic guards to protect the trunks of my fruit trees over winter; they're soft and slip on easily. Remember to remove tree guards in the Spring so they don't impede trunk growth.

And then reapply them every winter until the trees get so big you feel foolish doing it; I've had bark attacked on two and three year old peach trees over winter. Which reminds me: I think its time for me to dig my tree guards out and wrap them around our peach tree trunks. Anything happens to MY WIFE'S peach trees and I'm sleeping in the garage.

…And we don't HAVE a garage!

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