By Teo Spengler
Any gardener can tell you that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. But the second best time is today, so dig in and make it happen. Seedlings aren’t expensive and a tree provides untold benefits, including shade, birdsong and even an increase in your property value. Here are a 5 top tips to get you started.
1. Choose a tree thoughtfully and carefully. Whether you have a happy relationship with the new tree in your garden depends largely on how much care you use in choosing the species. You should invest as much effort in picking a tree as you do a pet—or even a spouse. Many trees live a century or longer, while few dogs or marriages survive that long.
Evaluate exactly what you have to offer a new tree, then pick a tree that thrives under those very conditions. Start with hardiness zone, since a tree that is not hardy in your region is not likely to last very long. Then figure out how much space you have, the exposure, the soil type and specifics of drainage. Pick a tree species that fits your site. Then select a healthy specimen at the garden store.
2. Plant your tree right. A well-planted tree grows faster and is more likely to be healthy and vigorous than a poorly planted one. You’ll need to be sure the hole is three times the diameter of the rootball, and blend in one part compost to three parts excavated soil for backfill.
Plant your tree in spring or fall on a cool, windless, humid day. If your tree is bare root, soak the roots the night before planting day. Remove the container and/or all packaging ropes and wires. Position the tree so that the soil level is the same as it was in its prior planting location or container.
3. Don’t stint on water. Even if you chose a drought tolerant tree, you’ll need to water it thoroughly and regularly for the first few years after planting. Immediately after planting, water the tree at low pressure to settle the soil. After that, water the tree deeply whenever the soil is dry to promote deep, strong roots. What about winter? Be sure the tree starts winter well irrigated. If your winters are wet, irrigation isn’t an issue. But step in with the hose during warm, dry stretches.
4. Don’t prune or fertilize a young tree. Remember that your tree is trying to establish itself in a new location. It must develop a strong root system, get used to the new growing conditions, and make it through the winter. Given this, stimulating the tree to grow faster and produce more foliage is just a bad idea. Don’t fertilize a newly planted tree until the second or third year. Similarly, limit pruning to the absolutely essential at first. As the tree gets established, you can start to prune or train it.
5. Mulch not grass. Think of the soft carpet of dead leaves a forest provides its trees. That’s natural mulch, organic material layered over a tree’s root area to protect against cold and heat, hold in moisture and keep down weeds. Don’t even think of sowing grass beneath a young tree for a year or two. Trees don’t compete well with grass for nutrients they need to thrive.