Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
March, 2005
Regional Report

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Plant a tree and invest in the future!

Plant a Tree

I planted five little trees yesterday. In the grand scheme of things, and on our seven-acre landscape, it may not seem like much, but to me planting trees isn't just about the trees, it's about hope, too. And this time, it was maybe even about a little revenge.

A developer recently bought three acres adjoining our property, and over the last few weeks he has cut down every tree. I approached him, asking if he could at least leave the trees that separate our property from his. His reply was that they are "trash" trees that pose a "liability" to him selling the eight or nine building lots he wants to carve out of the property.

In my world, trees are never trash. They might be in an inappropriate location, or of a species not ideal for the locale. But never trash. In this case, the trees helped create a nice little entrance into our L-shaped property, and this was especially important to me because we recently opened a B&B in our home. Maybe the developer will plant some "non-trash" trees, but I doubt it. And even if he does, it will take decades for them to grow to the size to replace the ones he cut down.

It's a little unnerving to think that I'll be at least 60 years old by the time the trees I just planted reach their full, glorious size. Planting trees is a act of patience, hope, and trust.

So, why wait?! Here are some guidelines for planting a container-grown or balled-and-burlapped tree.

1. Choose the right tree. Do some research and select a tree that is appropriate for your landscape. Take into consideration your climate and light levels, and the mature size of the tree. Trees shouldn't be an impulse buy or a matter of what's on sale that week.

2. Plant it as soon as possible. In the meantime, keep it in a sheltered location and keep the soil moist.

3. Dig a hole at least twice as wide, but just as deep, as the root ball. You want the tree to sit at exactly the same depth as it is in its nursery container. Ideally, the rootball will sit on undisturbed soil, so try not to dig too deep a hole, then have to backfill to bring it up to the proper level. Why? Because backfilled soil will settle, and you may find that your tree will end up in shallow depression where water will collect around the trunk.

You do want the hole significantly wider than the rootball. This is especially important if you have heavy clay soil, because using a spade to dig a hole in clay creates slick walls, similar to the way a potter's hands create a smooth pot. This smooth, slick surface is univiting to roots. By digging the hole two or three times wider than the rootball, you create a transition zone, inviting the roots to venture out. Keep in mind that at the nursery the tree roots are in a rich, loose, nursery soil, and you want to encourage them to spread into the surrounding soil.

4. Set the tree in the hole. If the tree is wrapped in burlap, cut the twine holding the fabric, trying not to disturb the roots. If the tree is in a metal basket, bend it back or cut the wires around the perimeter.

5. Begin backfilling. Use the soil you removed from the hole, rather than using purchased topsoil or compost. Again, this is to encourage the tree to anchor itself into the native soil. You are creating a transition zone of loose, but still native, soil. At most, amend the backfill soil with 10 percent topsoil or compost, but no more. Once the hole is half filled, water it well. Make sure the tree is still sitting at the proper height.

6. Finish backfilling. Bring the soil level up to the level of the surrounding soil. Water the tree again. Then create a 3- or 4-inch-tall berm about 2 feet in diameter around the perimeter, to create a little catch basin around the tree. This will hold the water you, or nature, applies, directing it toward the root zone. Once the tree is established, you can remove this berm. Eventually, you want water to drain away from the trunk, but as the tree is settling in, it's critical that the roots receive adequate water.

7. Mulch the tree. Use a 2- or 3-inch layer of bark mulch to help hold in moisture and discourage weeds.

Water your tree regularly, especially during its first season of growth. This is the single most important step in ensuring your tree's survival!

As I was planting my trees, I was imagining who might be sitting under them 40 or 50 years from now. I pictured some kids sitting in the shade, fishing in the creek, maybe a couple of dogs playing in the field behind them. I hope that happens. I hope the next occupants of this property love trees and don't see them as a "liability" but rather as the majestic, awe-inspiring, living beings that they are!

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