Planting A New Tree
Early winter is an ideal time to think about planting trees in your yard. Why? Because the lack of foliage allows you to assess the space available and determine which species is needed to add value to your home. Landscaping increases the appeal of a home by 5-11%, provides shade, and adds to the pleasure we take in living there. Late fall or early spring planting improves viability although container-grown plants can be put in any time of year except in frozen ground. In fall and winter, growth will be in the root system. In spring and summer, foliage requires extra moisture which necessitates more water.
Consider the space available: Some trees grow tall and wide while others have the particular shape you may want. Plant the chosen tree so that when the tree matures, its branches will remain several feet from your house. This will help avoid clogged gutters or damage to the house from fallen limbs. Remember to look for utilities overhead and underground, and be mindful of septic fields. Ask yourself, how much will other plants compete for sun and rain? For twenty years I wondered why an American holly never grew any taller until three nearby trees came down and the holly took off like gangbusters. A soil test will help you choose the right species for your yard and thus avoid expensive fertilizing. Does the earth stay damp or dry? Consideration of these factors in the planning stages will return dividends for years.
Selecting a specimen that fits your desires and matches the requirements of your site will relieve disappointment later. What do you want your new tree to do? Remain green year-round? Flower? Shield a view or draw attention to itself? Shelter the home from wind, sound, or pollution? Information about the characteristics of a particular species comes from many sources including nursery staff, the tree tag, local planting guides and your extension agent. It’s helpful to ask about a particular plant in the nursery since there may be a variety of features developed from the same species.
Obviously you want a healthy tree, so go to a reputable source and decrease the chance of diseases and pests. Although I’ve dug trees from the property of generous neighbors, I’ve lost some because it’s difficult to get enough of the root. A similar problem arises with trees bagged with burlap. These trees will not have as complete a root structure as container-grown specimens and will need more watering. Notice any damaged bark and odd branching structure that will cause problems as the tree grows. A little homework in the selection process allows you to anticipate the needs of your new addition. We all want quick results, but note that a tree with a one inch trunk will catch up to a much larger tree because it will establish itself sooner and with less maintenance.
OK, you’re ready to plant the right tree in the right place. Digging a hole at least twice the size of the root ball will allow horizontal roots to spread, anchoring the plant against storms. Scoring the sides of the hole helps that process along, especially in our clay soil. Ordinarily, we want to match the soil line of the site with the soil line of the new tree. We make an exception to this rule if the ground is either especially compacted or it stays wet. Some trees, such as bald cypress and willow, like wet feet, while others would never flourish if water pools near their roots. If you need to plant a few inches higher than the surrounding yard, pull soil up to the tree’s soil line and remember you’ll need extra watering in the first year.
Place the tree in the hole with as much of the soil around its root ball as possible. If it’s root-bound, you’ll see lots of small roots that have pushed against the sides of the container. Make a few vertical cuts in the root ball so that you can spread the roots out. I once neglected to do that. When I dug up a stunted azalea five years later, I found that its roots had never escaped the shape of its container because it could not penetrate our sticky clay.
With a bagged and burlap tree, place the tree in the hole before removing anything. Peel the burlap away but do not attempt to pull it out from under the root. It’s not necessary to remove either burlap or any wire basket completely. Just cut the horizontal wire around the top of the ball so it won’t strangle the tree or interfere with maintenance in the future.
Fill the hole about two-thirds with only local soil, no amendments. (Roots can be slow to move into native soil if the amended soil provides a more attractive environment.) You can amend the soil of planting beds, but not individual holes. In addition, water tends to stay in the hole with the lighter amended soil rather than flowing out into the dense clay. Water that accumulates in the hole can suffocate the roots or cause root rot.) Adjust the trunk to be upright and water thoroughly at this point to settle the soil. When the water has gone down, finish filling to the soil level. Any left-over soil can make a 3-4 inch berm around the hole. The berm will help later watering to soak into the roots, keep mulch from escaping and form a temporary barrier to weeds. Regular watering of about an inch a week is essential, especially for spring and summer planting when rain can be sparse and new roots are undeveloped. Three inches of mulch keeps the ground from drying out. Pull mulch away from the trunk — about 3 or 4 inches away — to discourage pests and adventitious roots.
Maintenance during the early years insures a better result. If a sapling leans, stake it with three supports, being careful that the lines are padded to protect the trunk and branches. Leave a little slack to allow the tree to secure itself. Remove the staking after a year. Weeding the mulch will keep the lawn mower and string trimmer from damaging the trunk. Fertilizer may not be required at all for container-grown nursery stock since it’s usually included at the nursery. A controlled-release fertilizer protects a new plant’s roots from burning and continues to nourish them over time. When next spring arrives, your work will begin to pay off by adding beauty and value to your home.
“Tree and Shrub Planting Guidelines,” pubs.ext.vt.edu/430/430-295
“24 Ways to Kill a Tree,” pubs.ext.vt.edu/430/430-210
“Trees and Shrubs for Overhead Utility Easements,” pubs.ext.vt.edu/430/430-029
“Effect of Landscape Plants on Perceived Home Value,” pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-087
“Selecting Landscape Plants: Shade Trees,” pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-610
“Planting Trees,” pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-702