Trees are among the most valued resources on the planet. Not only do they absorb carbon dioxide and provide oxygen, they guard against erosion from heavy rain and help slow flooding in rainy seasons. Trees produce many nuts and fruits we enjoy, provide shade, habitats for our favorite woodland creatures, and – whether you love that old tire swing, birdwatching, or laying in a shaded hammock – trees have been a source of enjoyment for millennia
You’ve likely heard the old proverb, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is right now.”
But before you run out to your local nursery to grab a sapling, there are a few considerations to keep in mind when selecting and planting your next tree. Let’s dig in.
Picking the Best Tree for Your Landscape
When you’re in the market for a new tree, you may have a certain variety in mind: maybe you loved playing under a weeping willow as a child, you enjoy the bright orange leaves of an October Glory Maple, or you’d love to pick fresh fruit from your own tree.
It may be tempting to pick out something you’re naturally drawn to, but selecting the right tree for your landscape is critical to it maturing into a healthy tree. Ask yourself these questions:
What is the mature size of the tree and where do you plan to plant it?
Whether they’re at a nursery or big box store, trees available for sale will have a label that provides information about it, including its mature size. Some shade trees, like a Sycamore, can reach heights of 75 feet tall and 55 feet wide. Though that would be way down the road, it’s important to think about space: buildings, underground cables, and overhead utility lines.
Growth habit and growth rate will also be on the label, which can also help you select the right size tree. For example, if you want a fast-growing, pyramidal shape tree for an average-sized yard, a variety of Red Maple would be a solid choice.
Is it pretty?
This is a fun one. Once you have determined a general size, you can move on to aesthetics. Would you prefer a prolific spring bloomer like a Magnolia, an exfoliating bark tree like a river birch, or a fruit-bearing tree? You may be looking for a tree with brilliant fall color or an evergreen for year-round enjoyment. Trees come in all shapes and sizes, so do your research. Nursery personnel can often help you find the perfect fit.
Can you maintain the tree?
Tree care can be costly and time consuming. Factors to consider are disease and pest resistance, pruning and training, and drought tolerance. Some trees attract pests, which could damage the tree and spread to the rest of your landscape. Some trees need seasonal pruning and shaping to establish a good growth habit.
All newly-planted trees need a minimum of one inch of rainfall per week, so if rain is scarce and irrigation is not an option, you may want to choose a drought-tolerant tree like the Eastern Redbud.
The Importance of Planting Trees at the Right Depth
The current size of your tree and whether it’s container grown or a balled and burlap (B&B) tree both will play a part in how it’s planted. The most essential element for either, though, is not to plant a tree too deep. In fact, this issue is so pervasive, it’s the first thing we check when a tree is struggling to thrive. As the saying goes, “Plant them high and they’ll never die.”
Every tree has a root flare, or the point at which the roots meet the trunk. If the root flare is not exposed:
- The tree will not get as much oxygen as it needs. The root flare helps with the exchange of oxygen and moisture between the root system and soil.
- Roots could become impacted. Unhealthy root growth occurs as the tree matures and even more soil compacts on the roots. Roots grow upward toward the ground’s surface instead of downward and outward like a healthy root system should. Avoiding this is important, as the tree needs deep roots to absorb water and nutrients from the soil.
- Your tree is more vulnerable to pests and diseases. If it’s buried, the root flare – which is meant to be above the soil line – is exposed to excess moisture, leading to rot and the growth of fungus. Insects and pests can also dig into the buried root flare, causing a pest infestation that could be costly to treat and may not be successful.
- Girdling may occur. Root girdling occurs when smaller roots that circle instead of growing outwards, strangling the trunk. This results in slow growth and can even lead to the death of your tree. Root growth problems can sometimes be addressed as the tree grows, but they can be costly and ultimately “too little, too late.”
Identifying the root flare can be challenging. Remember, it may already be covered when you purchase your new tree.
Make sure you clear around the base of the tree and look for changes in bark color and texture as you move down the trunk to where the trunk begins to flare out. The root flare should be your starting point for digging your hole depth, keeping the flare above ground level.
Tree Planting 101
Container-grown trees range in size from 3 gallons up to 25 gallons. They are grown in a soil mix of sand, compost, and fertilizers. This mix is likely not what they are living in as they mature, so you will want to help them with the transition by having a good potting mix to mix with the native soil when planting to help transition to the native soil.
- Once you’ve determined the depth of the hole, dig twice the diameter of the tree’s container, where you’ll center your tree. Digging a hole this wide helps prevent compaction that would prevent healthy root growth.
- Ensure the sides of the hole are vertical, as opposed to diagonal.
- Remove the container by slicing the sides so it will peel away.
- Check that the soil is stable inside the pot and score the exposed roots to help control girdling and promote outward growth.
- Center the tree in the hole and recheck the height of the root flare.
- Once it is at the proper depth, begin backfilling with a 50/50 mix of potting and native soils, ensuring the trunk is as straight up and down as possible.
- Slowly soak the soil with water to settle the soil and remove air pockets.
- Once the loose soil is saturated, stake the tree to keep it from falling or being blown over.
- Add a layer of mulch to help retain moisture. Mulch should resemble a donut around the tree. Don’t cover the root flare.
A balled and burlap (B&B) tree will be more challenging to plant without the help of a professional. Aside from their sheer size, they may already have a significant amount of soil covering the root flare.
- You must first expose the trunk at the top of the burlap and use a straight rod to probe down and find the flare. Once you do, subtract that amount when measuring for hole depth.
- Dig a hole about a foot larger than the B&B diameter.
- Cut and remove the burlap and any twine or wire baskets.
- Gently rock the tree from side to side using your shovel at the base of the ball for leverage to remove materials from underneath.
- If excess soil covers the root flare, carefully remove it, scrape it into the hole, and backfill with native soil.
- Water the soil to settle it and remove air pockets.
- Stake the tree for support. Don’t forget to remove stakes after the first six months to a year so the tree can gain strength.
- Add a donut mulch ring.
Call in Your Trusted, Hometown Tree Expert
Trees are long-term investments. Correctly planting the right tree can save you time and money, and will provide you with years of enjoyment.
Speaking with an ISA-certified arborist at Craig’s Tree Service can help ensure tree planting leads to healthy, thriving trees that enhance your property’s beauty and contribute to the environment.
We can also help diagnose and treat trees that have a variety of ailments and can advise you on post-planting care, watering schedules, fertilization, mulching, pruning requirements, and more. Reach out today.