When we think about the best time of year to plant, we generally think of spring. But late summer/early fall is also a good time to plant a tree. If the tree is planted in early fall, it will have enough time to establish its root system before the ground freezes.
Choosing the Right Tree for the Right Place
It’s always a good idea to select the right tree for the location you have chosen. It sounds so simple; yet as arborists, we see many trees in the landscape that should never have been planted where they are. The following questions will help you narrow down your list of possible choices.
Let’s begin with the general purpose of the tree. Do you need screening for privacy? How about wind reduction or shade? Or perhaps you would like a prominent landscape feature, in which case you should consider the tree’s shape, color, flowers, and overall size.
What about site conditions? Is the planting area saturated or dry most of the time? How much sunlight or shade is present? Will it be an understory tree, or will it have plenty of room to grow? Picture in your mind the mature size of the tree. You don’t want it to crowd out other important landscape features.
Which Tree Species?
You should also plant a wide variety of species in your landscape. Native species are usually a good choice, because they have naturally adapted to the local climate and conditions. Additionally, native trees are more likely to be resistant to pest and disease problems. All of these and more are considerations to keep in mind when selecting your new tree.
A common problem is to overplant with just a few species. This limits the number of beneficial predators that feed on harmful pests. If you overplant with any particular species, your landscape is vulnerable to devastation by a disease or pest infestation. Follow the 30-20-10 percent rule of selection advocated by the late Dr. Frank Santamour, the former geneticist at the National Arboretum in Washington DC. Don’t plant more than 30 percent from any plant family. Additionally, don’t choose more than 20 percent from any genera or use more than 10 percent of plants from a specific species. Sticking to this rule will help ensure you have a wide variety of plants in your landscape.
Choosing Your Tree
Once you’ve settled on the type of tree to plant, it’s time for a visit to the nursery to pick one out. Take a good look at leaf color and size along with branch structure. You want to avoid broken, crossing, rubbing, and of course, dead and dying branches. Cracks or sunscald may be indicators of more serious problems along the trunk. And, don’t forget to look below for girdling and circling roots that can choke off the vascular system as the tree matures. Note that the original planting depth in the nursery can be critical to the future health of the tree. You should be able to see a root flare at the point where the trunk meets the soil.
Tree Size Matters
Believe it or not, if you plant a smaller tree (three to five feet tall) versus a larger tree (seven to nine feet tall), the smaller tree will often be larger than the bigger one within about five to seven years. This is because a smaller tree will tend to have more of its original root system intact at the time of planting and will adapt to the surrounding soil better. Larger trees tend to suffer from planting shock and can take several years to recover. An added benefit of planting a smaller tree is that the smaller tree is not only easier to transport and plant, it’s also less expensive.
Planting Your Tree
You have your tree; now let’s get it planted. To give the new tree the best chances for long-term survival, dig the planting hole at least twice the width of the root ball, but leave a pedestal for the root ball to sit on. The top of the root ball should be a couple of inches higher than the surrounding ground level. Remember the old adage: “Plant them high, and they never die; plant them low, and they never grow.”
Arborists recommend using only the existing soil as backfill. Remove any wire baskets, burlap (even if it is biodegradable), ropes, and the like. If necessary, stake the tree outside the root ball (for example, if the tree has a thick canopy). If you use stakes, remove them after one year. The tree will develop a stronger trunk and have a nice taper if it is allowed to move freely with the wind.
Applying Mulch to Your Tree
Finally, apply a two- to three-inch layer of wood-chip mulch. Keep the mulch away from the trunk. Spread it as far out over the future root system as possible. Whatever you do, don’t pile it up “volcano” style. Plant trees together in shared mulch beds or tree islands, but be sure to allow room for mature growth.
For tree planting or pruning help this fall, contact Growing Earth Tree Care.