…and with new houses come new landscapes. New landscapes mean there’s going to be a lot of new trees being installed, in all sorts of locations too. Unfortunately for the trees, the most common problem I see with young trees is certainly the most important. PLANTING!! Trees are living organisms, like an animal, and they need to be cared for if you want them to survive. Looking after a tree is a simple task, but without proper installation it only brings struggles.
Most trees that are planted by homeowners are still in the relative infancy. Less than 10 years old, these poor trees are sold by stores, nurseries and private growers and left to their own defences. Out in the world, away from the cosy life of daily attention and watering and living where somebody may not have even asked for it! Don’t take a new tree for granted as there has been a lot of love gone into it before it ends up in the ground for one last time.
It always interests me in what people think about planting a tree. Most seem to believe it to be quite inconsequential. Its birth and transplant can’t be more important. It won’t even make it to maturity if it’s not put in the ground correctly, so please make sure when you have a tree planted, make sure the planter is experienced and qualified. A lot of companies hire part time seasonal staff to do such tasks as tree planting, with minimal knowledge of trees and clearly a distinct lack of training or direction. Don’t trust such an important investment like [potentially] a 100 year old tree to students making a quick $$$ for the summer. Check credentials before hiring tree planters from your local gardening store, but an arborist will be your best source for information to the intricate details of tree planting.
The usual way for a tree to make it to its final home is via a plastic container, where it’s been, potentially, for a number of years. Often the tree is at the point where it’s outgrowing it’s container and the roots are beginning to encircle the perimeter of the root ball.
If a planter doesn’t break up the outside of the root ball, the roots could well continue to circle the ball after installation. The owner would be completely unaware until the roots begin to girdle each other as they grow, cutting off the water and nutrient supply to the above ground portion of the tree, causing twig or more significant die back. This is when the arborist gets the call, but it’s too late. Established roots can’t be modified and the tree should be replaced. The roots need to be shown which direction to grow by massaging them off the soil and have them pointing away from the tree when put in the ground. A good watering around the roots at time of installation will encourage them to grow away from the root zone too.
Some larger trees come in a wire basket and wrapped in burlap (the wire basket and burlap must be removed in its entirety before being planted. I can’t count how many dead trees I have seen removed still in their basket from installation. If you see a tree planter using this practice, be prepared to get a new tree.) These trees have to be dug to be planted, and more often than not they have many roots severed. This limits it’s ability to absorb water and essential nutrients from the soil. These trees may satisfy a customers immediate desire for a larger tree, but they are often slow growers as a result from having to regrow a large portion of their root system, before putting on new growth above ground. If the tree isn’t nurtured in this condition it’s development will stutter, and at such a young age it will fall into a rough cycle to get stuck in.
If I was planting a new tree, I would start with a tree no older than 3 or 4 years old. Preferably one that has only had 1 pot its whole life, or one from bare root stock (if you can find them). If a tree is planted with never having had a root severed or chance to girdle it will establish in the new environment much easier, opposed to frantically trying to put on new roots so it can feed itself or strangling itself to death. A starving tree can quickly die back to consolidate in survival mode.
Planting depth is crucial to consider. It’s frightening to hear someone say “I planted my tree good and deep, that tree is never falling over!” Now, depending on how much sarcasm a client can take, it’s fun explaining and educating why that’s actually bad practice.
Root balls are different from tree to tree. Soil levels differ so the ball may have to be modified before putting it in the ground. The simple method is to plant the tree with its first structural root level, or just ABOVE, the grade of the land. This will ensure the absorbing roots are near the surface, where they need to be. It also lessens the risk of basal or trunk rot down the line. If a tree is put in the ground too deep you are simply asking for trouble. Available oxygen is greatly diminished just a few inches below grade (not to mention water and other nutrients) and the tree will be in a fight for its life from day 1. Simple to remember that a seed in the forest never gets ‘planted’. It falls onto the ground, germinates and starts life at the top. Nobody digs a hole in the great outdoors and the trees thrive.
Many many people still think the idea of putting landscape fabric around a tree, or the whole garden, is a great idea too. This is genuinely laughable given what we know about the root zone and what it needs to be functional. At its best it stops weeds, but at its worst it will suffocate roots, limit soil interaction with the atmosphere and make long term trunk development harder.
Depending on the soil quality, it may need to be modified. Creating a mix of nutrient rich soil and native soil could help new roots develop, but try to stick with what you removed from the ground where possible. The tree needs to be in a steady environment for best results, it should be left to adjust to the new soil with just water for the first year. Fertilizing it can burn new roots and should be delayed for the first 18-24 months. If soil tests have been done to reveal low levels of nutrients then fertilizing the ground just before planting can yield good results, but this must be done annually for the tree, otherwise it will feel a loss when fertilizing is stopped and likely suffer.
A great way to add nutrients to the soil is to surround your tree with a couple of inches of organic mulch. Trees, like these pictured; can mulch themselves with their leaves, or have it applied manually, but the quest for a perfect lawn has us raking this nutrient-rich matter away and leaving the soil deficient, and that's why we should incorporate mulch into our landscape designs. Over time these mulches break down to improve the overall soil structure, reduces weeds and grasses growing and protects the root zone from excessive heat. If the right mulch is selected it can look great in any landscape, but it does need to be managed. It needs to be turned over and topped up periodically, to keep it looking sharp and bringing more nutrients to the environment. Rocks and boulders can be common as a decoration around trees, but I wouldn’t use them. This opinion may be negligible to some, but in some cases over-sized/excessive rocks can compact soil, limit water space and reduce drainage. Limestone has a tendency to give the soil more alkaline over time also. This may be an extreme view but if something is avoidable then I think is should be avoided.
Once that tree is in the ground, at the correct height, and ready to grow, staking should be considered. It is only necessary if the tree can’t support itself in high winds and torrential rain. As a tree grows it strengthens itself within its local environment. A non-staked tree growing at an angle of 20˚ has the potential to be considerably stronger than a vertical tree which was staked for the first 10 years of its life. The stake just acts as a crutch and when it is removed a tree will encounter forces it has never had to deal with before. This is where the problems can arrive with it’s structural integrity and trunk weaknesses can be highlighted.
Don’t underestimate tree planting. Many do and as a result it allows poor practice to continue throughout the industry. It’s such a simple process when done properly and it’s so painful to tell people they have wasted their time and money on something so beautiful.