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Sapling Success: Tree Planting Tips

sapling success tree planting tips
A young red maple seeks the light,

Maybe you scored big in Howard County’s Annual Tree Giveaway this week. Maybe you’re scouting nurseries for the finest foliage. Wherever your trees are coming from, whether maple, oak, or dogwood, the same initial actions will help them thrive for decades to come. Here’s our advice:

  • Site right. Location, location, location.  A tree that requires “welI-drained soil” is not going to prosper in clay where water sits for hours. Similarly, you’ll want to seek out a sheltered spot for a sapling likely to be sensitive to cold. What balance of sun/shade is ideal? Envision your tree as it will be full-grown and don’t plant too close to foundations, power lines, or paved areas. Call 811 to check that there are no underground utilities where you’d like to plant.
  • Break free. Remove the tree’s root ball from any container or wrap. (Do this only when you are ready to plant; don’t let the soil on the roots dry.) Check for any roots that are circling or growing in the shape of the container. Pull apart such roots from each other so that they hang down. Don’t worry about minor root breaks; it’s more important that the roots be free to grow in a healthy pattern. Root-bound trees will not thrive, and may die from being unable to absorb water and nutrients properly. 
  • Wide, not deep. Most of a tree’s roots will stay in the top 12 inches of soil as it grows, but they will widen out, reaching at least as wide as the full-grown tree is tall. Provide a proper start by making your hole at least 2 to 3 times wider than the root ball. But don’t go deep; you want the top of the root ball about even with the top of the hole. 
  • Position with care. Carry the tree to the hole cradling the root ball rather than holding the tree by the trunk. Make sure the tree is straight once it’s in the hole and check that it stays straight through the process of replacing soil. Make sure the flare where trunk joins to roots does not get buried.
  • Dirt everywhere. You don’t want pockets of air left after you fill your hole. Roots need contact with soil, so gently press the soil into place as you go along. (Don’t pack the soil hard.)
  • Mulch. While most soil does not need compost or other additives to adequately nourish a new tree, a mulch made out of organic materials such as wood chips can be helpful to finish off your hole. Layer on no more than 2-4 inches deep starting a few inches away from the trunk and extending out widely. Again, don’t bury the root flare. (More on mulch)
  • Water, water, and observe. Newly planted trees need lots of water. Water yours right away, perhaps even beginning part-way through your planting  to be sure you’re hitting all roots. Go for slow but deep, trickling or spraying water all around the planting area. Then continue watering, daily the first week, then around a couple times a week in the first months that follow (needs will vary with tree type). Don’t skimp (10 gallons per inch of trunk diameter per week is typically needed for even established trees) but don’t overdo it. New trees can drown from overwatering, and the deep root systems needed to resist drought will not develop if there’s always ample water at the surface. Before watering, check soil moisture a couple inches down using a trowel or screwdriver (you want moist, not sopping wet) rather than relying on calendar frequencies. If you’re faced with the challenge of recovering overwatered trees, it’s essential to adjust your watering schedule and allow the soil to dry out appropriately to prevent root rot and other water-related issues.
  • Minimize interference. Research has found most new trees do not need to be staked. If yours is in a particularly windy area you may want to consider staking but leave some slack in wires (which should not be attached directly to the tree), allowing the tree to move and grow naturally. Remove stakes after one year maximum. Do not fertilize new trees in the first year and limit pruning to removing dead and damaged branches. Your tree needs some time to adapt to its new environment and the stress of being planted.

You are always welcome to contact Tree Pros for questions or needed services. We can advise on maintaining tree health, beauty, and storm resistance. Look forward to hearing from you, and enjoy your trees!

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