Finally, Planting Trees

Removing stabilizing straps left on too long from a damaged tree. Photo: Lise Jenkins

THE ABSENTEE GARDENERS

By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

These past two weeks Kit and I have fretted and fussed about trees. We’ve confessed poor choices and lamented mistakes in the hope of helping you avoid costly problems.

Now we arrive at the big moment, getting your carefully considered and well-chosen tree in the ground. A lot can, and does, go wrong at this stage. So, continue on with us, dear readers, as our tree journey arrives at a happy conclusion. 

Much of what follows seems so obvious you can’t believe we bother to write it down, or that you make the time to read it. Please give us your attention for just a few minutes more as your tree’s life may depend on it.

The tree you are looking at today is a baby. Be realistic about its mature size and select a location that can accommodate the size it will become, not the size your tree is now. It’s hard to go to all the effort, and expense, of planting a tree and be satisfied with a tiny slip of a trunk waiving in any empty space. We want instant impact, but trees are not instant beings.

Site selected; now, finally, we’ve arrived at the part you’ve been waiting for — digging a hole. The question is how deep and wide should it be?

Paige Patterson, horticulture agent at the Watauga County Cooperative Extension Service in Boone, says many of the tree problems she encounters were caused by trees being planted too deeply.

“You want the base of the tree, where it tapers into the scaffolding roots, to be at the soil line,” Paige said. “You should be able to see that curve. If you can’t it’s too deep.”

The perfect planting hole as one that is at least three times as wide as the original container, approximately as deep, and with sloping sides. Because the weight of a tree will likely cause it to sink, take care not to dig too deeply. Sadly, some people interpret this advice by planting trees way above the soil line, mounding mulch up around it to producing something akin to a volcano spouting a tree.

Once you have the spot prepared and your carefully-selected tree placed inside, gently pull the roots apart to encourage spreading, backfill with soil, tamp down and water well.

Depending on your location you may want to amend the soil you fill in around your tree with compost. But don’t overdo it. Your goal is to create an environment that encourages root development.

Heavy, compacted clay soil can be difficult for tender young roots to penetrate. Adding too much compost right next to the tree will encourage root development, but will discourage spreading, resulting in a small, dense root ball. It’s better to thoroughly mix local soil with compost, dig the hole as wide as you possibly can, and break up the sides of the hole to encourage root penetration.

With the hole dug and the tree installed, you can add mulch around the base. This will help prevent the loosened soil from eroding and help retain moisture — but keep the mulch about three inches away from the trunk of the tree.

Finally, you may need to install stakes and straps to stabilize the tree, especially important if your location is windy or on a slope. Remember to move, or remove, the straps after 12-18 months to prevent them from damaging the bark.

Your future self will be grateful if you take a picture and record the date. We enjoy a long growing season here and I always marvel at how much my garden changes from one season to the next.

Now that you’ve mastered tree planting, why stop at just one? There are many organizations that encourage tree planting. Check with your local Cooperative Extension Service office or any of the following organizations for information about what is near you.

  1. Nature Conservancy – Plant a Billion Trees https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/plant-a-billion/
  2. National Forest Foundation https://www.nationalforests.org/get-involved/tree-planting-programs
  3. Tree City USA https://www.arborday.org/programs/treecityusa/

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: info@absentee-gardener.com

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