How To Plant a Tree

People get awards each year for planting the most trees. In my opinion, this is silly. This is like rewarding someone for practicing lots of unprotected sex. There is so little effort involved in planting a tree, if it is done right, and so much effort involved in its first two or three years in the landscape. When a tree is planted, it is needy, like a kitten or a puppy.

It needs protection from the elements, especially wind. It also needs water, but not too much. Just enough. Siting the correct tree in the right place is also important. Siting a tree that wants to  burgeon forth in all directions right next to the sidewalk, or your front door is irresponsible. The fates will punish you with tree work costs.

Its not rocket science, but if you think a bit about what you want from a tree, and what you are willing to give, you will have a better time of it, and so will your new arboreal friend.

Start with a visit to a nursery when you aren’t buying a tree. Look at books, take walks, photograph trees you like and even knock on doors to ask people what type of tree is in their yard. Most people will tell you all about their trees, and you might want to have an exit strategy planned for those who talk too much. Nothing is as informative as a walk through a local arboretum or botanical garden. For one, unlike the nursery, you are seeing mature or huge specimens- for another, you are seeing nice little signs that tell you what their name is. And you want their common name, to tell your friends, but you want their scientific name to find it in a nursery.

Time of planting is important. I prefer the Autumn in temperate regions. Spring is also good, but think of this: all winter long the roots and below ground portion of the tree is growing faster than the top. In Spring the tops and above-ground portion are growing more rapidly. So if you want a well-founded tree, planting in Autumn or Winter is like setting a good anchor. A full and healthy root system is important. As an arborist, I am often shown trees with problems. The client is often surprised that I give the top a cursory examination, and spent a lot of time examining the roots.

How you plant is also important. I once attended a large tree planting event in Honolulu, where our city and county were hosting the foremost tree scientist of the time, Alex Shigo. He was given a microphone and asked to comment on how the trees looked. He said

” There is only one important rule for planting; Roots down, and tops up.” There was a general laugh, but he was serious. He went on to point out that our trees had the proper depth, so that a root flare was indeed showing, and that the trees were not set too high, so that they would tip over. The tree’s base should not look like a telephone pole. We can often bury tomatoes so that they are deeper than they were at the nursery, and they soon put out roots at a higher level. Not so with trees.  One of the easiest ways to kill a tree is to change the grade it is used to.

Unfortunately, not all nurseries have caught on to proper depth for woody plants. So you have to dig around and see if it looks right. If it is too shallow, the tree will be tippy. If it is too deep, the tree will fail to thrive.

A word on staking trees. It is almost never necessary, and yet sometimes advised. My preferred method is to drive a few small 2″x2″ stakes right through the root ball to pin it in place. Stakes and their wires can girdle and break a tree, and the practice of staking is ridiculously overused. Stakes left in  the ground, tied to the tree are a particular problem. The loosest ties will constrict and injure bark if left in place long enough.

I know arborists who routinely cut wires away from young trees. In my opinion, these are the ones who should be getting the awards.



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