Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
July, 2005
Regional Report

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A little mulch and a regular drink of water can help your new tree through its first stressful summer season

New Tree TLC

If you have a new shade tree in your yard you probably want it to grow big as quickly as possible. However, the first summer is a very stressful one for a new tree, and without proper care it could be its last. Here are a few tips to keep your new shade tree healthy and growing vigorously.

First, mulch the area around the tree as far out from the trunk as is practical. Every new tree should have a mulched area extending at least a few feet out in all directions.

This mulch will deter weeds, including turfgrass, which compete with the tree for water and nutrients. It also keeps the lawn mower and string trimmer away! However, don't pile mulch up against the trunk. This holds moisture up against the lower trunk which is not adapted to being kept wet. These "mulch volcanoes" are not good for the tree and can lead to rot. Besides, they look silly.

Nothing is more important than proper watering when it comes to helping a new tree survive its first stressful summer season, or making a tree really take off and grow. Too much water drives oxygen from the soil, leaving roots in a world of danger. If soggy conditions continue, roots will start to die and root rot fungi may move in to finish the job. Few trees can take such waterlogged conditions.

On the other hand, the more common problem is a lack of water. A new bare-root tree goes through a critical time early on when it must establish some delicate feeder roots or it will die. Dry conditions or anaerobic soggy conditions during this time are a recipe for quick death.

Container-grown trees also go through a critical period in which their new roots are starting to venture out into the surrounding soil. Until they do and start to establish a more extensive root system, a newly planted tree has a root zone pretty much the equivalent of what it was in the container.

I always recommend deep, infrequent watering to develop an extensive root system. But during a young tree's first summer season, a light watering every day or two can help the confined root system extend outward an become more extensive and able to sustain the plant through a drought.

A newly planted bare-root tree needs time to get some roots going before it can use any fertilizer. The soil has adequate nutrition to keep it going for a while. Container-grown trees usually have some slow-release fertilizer still in the original root zone so they too are in no need of an immediate fix.

After a few weeks begin to fertilize lightly. Start by sprinkling a couple of tablespoons of turf fertilizer around the new tree. Keep in mind where the roots still are and where they will soon be, so sprinkle it evenly throughout a circular area extending about a foot outward from the trunk in all directions. Water the fertilizer in well. You can also lightly scratch it into the mulched surface prior to watering if you like.

Continue to feed the tree every few weeks with light doses of fertilizer. When the new growth is really taking off start fertilizing based on trunk diameter. Apply 1 to 2 cups of fertilizer per inch of trunk diameter. Repeat this fertilizer application every month from late winter to late summer. Stop by about mid August to prevent pushing too much late-season growth, which is more susceptible to cold injury.

This combination of eliminating weed competition, mulching, maintaining moist soil, and encouraging growth with light, frequent doses of fertilizer will prevent needless loss of new trees during the first critical summer season or two. It will also turn a slow-growing tree species into a medium- to fast-growing one, and a medium-growing species into a rocket.

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