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Selecting and Caring for Your Trees

Gladys Fowler

Fall is a great time to plant a new tree. Prices are great, and there is still time for the roots to settle in for winter. Trees provide us with welcome relief from the summer’s heat. Trees and shrubs that produce fruit provide food for us and can attract birds and wildlife. Trees reduce run off, filter out pollutants and add oxygen to our air. Evergreens may provide a windbreak or privacy screen. A tree that drops its leaves lets the sun warm our houses in the winter. Ornamental trees provide us with lovely flowers, leaves or fruit.

Healthy trees add value to our properties and can even reduce heating and cooling costs when properly sited. Trees not only improve the appearance of our properties but they also contribute greatly to the quality of life in a city or neighborhood. Considering that many tree species can live for 200 to 300 yrs. and that most species will outlive the people who plant them; choosing a tree and caring for it is an investment that will give you enjoyment and value for years.

When selecting a tree there are many variables to consider: the size and location of the planting site, overhead or underground wires or utilities, other trees in the area, hardscapes such as patios, sidewalks, driveways, winter salt spray, and pollutants from car exhaust.

Probably the first question the buyer should ask is why is a tree being planted? Is it being planted for shade, to provide seasonal interest (flowers, fruit, foliage, bark, etc.) to give privacy, act as a windbreak, screen out an unattractive view, or to reduce heating and cooling costs. Soil may be deep, fertile and well drained or it may be shallow, infertile and compacted

Trees are particular about where they live. Some trees adapt very well to city conditions. They can deal with limited growing space, poorer soil, and pollutants such as road salt. Most trees prefer to have room for their roots to grow unhampered by sidewalks and asphalt or bordered by other large trees that are competing for water and nutrients. Before you buy, make sure the tree you choose is "hardy" to your area. Consider the height your tree will attain at maturity. Those overhead wires may not be a problem now but they may be in 15 or 20 years. The amount of sunlight available will affect tree selection, as most woody plants require full sunlight for proper growth and flower bloom. Some trees will do well in light shade but few species do well in dense shade. Wind exposure should also be a factor in site or species selection. Wind dries out soils, causes damage to branches, and can even uproot young trees with immature root systems.

Consider choosing a tree that is native to your region. Native species are far hardier, they are adapted to your climate, and because they are less stressed, tend to have fewer disease and pest problems.

Once you have chosen your tree and the best location for it, you’re ready to plant it. The planting hole should be no deeper than the size of the tree’s root ball. It should be wide to help the tree’s feeder roots to spread out easily in their search for food and water. The planting hole should be 15 to 30 cm wider on all sides than the pot or the root ball. Keep the dark topsoil separate from the lighter subsoil. When planting fill the hole with the subsoil first. Mix the topsoil with leaf compost and fill the top half of the hole. Pack the soil as you refill the hole, making sure that the top of the root ball is level with the ground. When planting, 3oz. or 90g of bonemeal can be added to 36L or 1 bushel of the topsoil used to fill the hole. This will supply phosphorus to help root growth. A healthy root system increases water and nutrients to the tree, which can then put out healthy leaves. Be very wary of adding nitrogen fertilizer, which promotes excessive top growth that may not harden off properly prior to winter. This excessive top growth comes at the expense of the immature root system. Your tree can be fertilized the following spring after planting with a balanced organic fertilizer.

If your tree is large or in a windy site, anchor it to a rigid stake using a flexible material with enough slack so that the tree can sway a little in the wind. After a year remove the tree stakes.

Water your new tree well. Twice a week in the first year and once a week in the second year, (less if there is rain) applying the water over the area of the root system which may be two to three times the size of the crown of the tree. A long, gentle watering with a soaker hose for an hour or two is preferable to light sprinklings especially in hot summer weather.

Your tree’s roots will be competing with the roots of grass growing around your tree. Do not replace the sod after digging the planting hole. Cover the soil with a 2-inch layer of wood chips or mulch. This will help to retain moisture and prevent weed growth. It also helps to prevent soil compaction and damage to the trunk by keeping people and machines away. Do not allow the mulch to touch the trunk of base of the tree. Leave a two-inch gap around the base of the trunk. Paving areas near the base of trees or changing the grade around the tree can prevent air and water from reaching the roots, which will eventually kill the tree.

Often the first things we notice when a tree is stressed are signs of insects or disease on the leaves. These pest problems are often symptoms of underlying health problems. A healthy tree is a well-chosen tree for the site and the region. It is a tree with a healthy root system grown in good, well-aerated soil. It is watered, fertilized and mulched appropriately. This healthy tree is far less susceptible to invasion by insects or disease.