April is all about our planet’s stewardship, from Earth Day to Arbor Day and now for the first year ever - National Native Plant Month. Many organizations have tree sales and giveaways in April, so this is a perfect time to discuss tree care. There are a few things to be aware of before you just dig a hole and plop a tree into it if you want your planting to truly be successful.
Start with your soil, the foundation of your tree’s life. Soils provide physical support, nutrients, water, and oxygen. Be aware of how your soil drains, how compacted it is, and the pH (test kits are widely available). Are there a lot of rocks in your soil? Does water just sit in your yard for a day or more after a rain? Adding soil amendments like compost to the planting hole can help break up compaction, increase drainage, and add valuable nutrients. Typically, up to 25% by volume of composted organic matter can be mixed in with the backfill soil if it is very difficult to work with (rocky or compacted) or has a very high clay content.
Where do you want your tree planted? Will it be near a road where a lot of snow and road salt accumulates? Many tree species cannot tolerate Ohio’s seasonal influx of salt onto our roads, and ultimately into our yards or tree lawns. Can it handle our cold Ohio winters? (*hint, using native, locally-grown species will increase the likelihood of survival.) Think about how big your tree will be at maturity. Could it interfere with power lines and ultimately have to be cut back every few years? Be very cautious about the location of overhead and underground utility lines when selecting a location and tree species. Calling 811 beforehand will help answer those questions. A crew will be sent to your property to mark out where your utilities are for free.
The species of your tree is another important factor. Are you planting a tree that can potentially be quite large? Is it a species that is known to harbor pests, like our ash species that are being decimated from the Emerald Ash Borer? (Sadly, my once-shady side of my house is now receiving full sun due to losing three ash trees a few years ago.) Does your tree require full sun (six or more hours of direct sunlight) or partial shade? Will it drop fruits, nuts, or seed cones that could be messy and require extra maintenance from you? Will it be in a location that you are able to give it regular waterings through the first year? Keep YOUR comfort level in mind, too.
When purchasing a tree, always try to work with a company you know and trust. Good dealers will have staff who are knowledgeable about trees and will provide good service. Guarantees are usually available from good suppliers – look for a one-year replacement guarantee if possible. Thoroughly look over your tree before purchase. If it is in a container, is it root bound (many
roots and little soil in the container)? A balled-and-burlapped tree should be tied securely, not dried out, and not have any protruding roots. Your bare-root tree should have an adequate root system as well, and extra care must be taken to keep their exposed roots moist.
A good rule of-thumb is that the root system, root ball, or container diameter should be ten to twelve inches for every inch of stem caliper (diameter at ground-line). In other words, a two-inch caliper tree should have a 20 to 24 inch wide root ball as a minimum. The depth of the root ball is not as critical as width, but should be larger for larger trees.
Which leads to the planting site. Dig your hole three times as wide as the container or root ball, but only as deep as the root ball itself. As our friends at Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District say, “Let the flare see the air!” Sloping the sides also provides support to the root system. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, now that you have put in the time and thought into selecting just the right tree in just the right spot, do NOT pile mulch up the stem. That is a guaranteed death sentence for your tree. Just say NO to the mulch volcano!
There are many things to keep in mind as you choose to add trees to your landscape, but with thoughtful consideration and planning, you will have many years of benefit and enjoyment from them. There are many good sources of information, including your local Cooperative Extension offices, Soil & Water Conservation Districts, Holden Arboretum/Cleveland Botanical Garden, Cleveland Public Library, park districts, nature centers, local nursery or garden centers, or a local arborist.
Photos courtesy of Utah State University Extension, Selecting and Planting Landscape Trees.