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Tree planting

by Timber Press on January 12, 2011

in Design, Gardening

It may not seem like it to those of you who are buried in snow at the moment, but fall and winter are a good time to plant trees and shrubs. I thought I’d repost this advice on planting trees and shrubs, given by Jennifer Benner and Stephanie Cohen of The Nonstop Garden. Because someday, somehow, the snow will melt. And you will be ready.

How to Give Your Trees and Shrubs a Good Start in Life

Have your soil tested. Before you put one plant in the ground, know what is happening in your soil. One of the great services of the Cooperative Extension System is soil testing. For a minimum fee, you can give them a soil sample and they will tell you your soil’s pH, organic matter content, and nutrient levels — all important things to know when you are trying to meet the needs of your plants. Cooperative Extension offices are listed in the phonebook and online. They can tell you everything you need to know about how to prepare and submit your soil sample for testing.

Dig a good hole. Trees and shrubs do not want to be planted too deep or too high. Like Goldilocks, they want it just right. Trees should not look like a telephone pole sticking out of the ground. If you look at them in the wild, their base is flared. When planting a new tree, find the flare and be sure that it sits an inch or two above the soil line. Likewise, plant shrubs so that the soil line in their pot or root ball is just a smidge higher (an inch) above the surface of the ground. Both trees and shrubs want a hole that is two or three times the width of their root ball or container. Trees have a natural flare at the base. If yours looks like a telephone pole, it is planted too deep.

Skip the fertilizer. You do not need to fertilize trees or shrubs at planting time. Fertilizer in the planting hole will only encourage your woody plant to keep its roots in that vicinity. You want the roots to span out and create a good anchoring system. Amending an entire planting area or bed to improve drainage and compaction is fine because you are creating a homogeneous soil environment. You just do not want the nutrient levels directly in the hole to be drastically different from those in the surrounding area.

Stay on top of watering. It usually takes a year or two before a tree or shrub is really settled in. During that time, it is important to give it regular water. Thoroughly water it at planting time, and then be sure it gets a good drink a least once a week, especially during the hot summer months. To keep the water from flowing away from the root zone, build a small, 3- or 4-inch soil berm around the base of the plant at the drip line. Once the plant is established, rake the berm flat.

Do not forget to mulch. One of the best things you can do for your tree or shrub is to give it a good 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch. Not only does this help keep the soil moist and the roots cool, it also keeps down weeds and slowly builds the soil with organic matter. Woodchip mulch from a nursery works well, but some of the best mulch can be found in your own backyard. Shredded leaves broken down into leaf mold and good old compost made from yard waste are excellent mulches. No matter what you use, do not overdo it. Remember that flare at the base of your tree? You do not want to bury that or your shrub stems. Roots need air. Creating a mulch volcano will do nothing more than slowly suffocate your plant.

Prune problem branches. Unless you are pruning your tree or shrub into the shape of a bunny or lollipop, you should not have to get your pruners out very often. Most woody plants require very little pruning. The time you will want to make cuts is when you see dead, damaged, or misplaced and rubbing branches (this includes suckers). Prune the problem branch back to the next healthy lateral branch, stem, or growing point. This can be done as soon as you notice the issue. Do not leave a nub; make the cut flush and clean. Any shaping or rejuvenation pruning should be done in late winter on most plants that flower on new wood, and after flowering for those that bloom on old wood.

1 Eva January 12, 2011 at 10:05 am

Love, love, love The Nonstop Garden! Eventually the library is going to tell me I have to stop checking it out…

2 Annie Haven/Authentic Haven Brand January 12, 2011 at 10:14 am

Wonderful gardening book, pages filled with inspiration : ) Annie

3 Benjamin January 12, 2011 at 10:37 am

This is good blanket advice. But planting in clay is a whole other issue in many regards–is there a book on planting all kinds of things in clay? A clay planting book? My perennials, shrubs, and trees do better over the years when I plant at least several inches high in clay; and to build a water holding berm can be a problem, too. I’m rambling, but I was curious about a book on clay soil gardening. (I do like the above idea of not amending soil, I think that’s key for clay, too.)

4 Chani West-Foyle, Marketing Associate January 12, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Hi Benjamin,

Scott Ogden wrote a book called “Gardening Success with Difficult Soils” that includes gardening on clay. It’s geared toward parts of the country that have mainly alkaline soils (such as the Southwest and parts of Texas), but it includes planting advice that would probably be of use in other areas. Check it out!

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