Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
July, 2008
Regional Report

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These giant shade trees didn't grow overnight, but there is much you can do to speed up the process.

Getting the Most Out of Shade Trees

On a hot summer day I really appreciate the giant shade trees in my yard. They provide a place to take a tolerable break from the summer sun either in a lawn chair or a hammock. Trees shade our homes, too, providing a break on the cooling bills. Around my place the St. Augustine grass in shady areas needs much less watering, as do my shade-loving annuals and perennials.

Unfortunately trees don't grow overnight. Many folks move into new neighborhoods that are virtually treeless except for some token "sticks" set out by the builders. Often these trees are not among the best species for the area and may either be very slow-growing or one of the "trash" species that grows fast and dies young.

We'd like to be able to set out a tree and be hanging that hammock ASAP, but reality says we'll have to wait awhile. Alas, all is not lost however as there is a lot you can do to speed up the process and grow some shade fairly quickly.

Fast-Growing Species
First of all we can start with a tree that is fairly fast-growing. Not all fast trees are poor choices. There are a number of good, long-lived species that grow at a moderately fast rate. Ask your local Extension office or a nearby garden center for suggestions, and do some research before making the long-term investment. What works well in one part of the lower South may not be the best choice in another.

Wide Mulched Areas
Trees don't like grass. We want them to get along, but they don't. When a tree is young, make it think it's growing in the forest floor with a wide mulched area (the wider the better) of leaves or wood chips that is maintained for at least five years. I create a 10-foot-diameter circle and lay leaves about 6 inches thick, replenishing them several times a year to maintain a good blanket to protect the soil, deter weeds, and hold in moisture.

At least control weeds and grass in the area beneath the dripline or branch spread of the tree. In one southern research trial pecan trees grown in a Bermudagrass field were compared with trees grown in soil where all grass and weeds were controlled. In five years the trees in bare soil were twice the size of those competing with grass.

Water and Fertilizer
Never let young trees lack for water. The goal is to grow them fast by not letting their growth be slowed by drought stress. Apply a good soaking every 3 days during the first warm season. I like to build a raised berm of soil about 4 to 5 feet in diameter for the tree's first year. This can be filled with water for a good soaking of the soil. The second and following seasons remove the berm and expand the watering to the entire area beneath the branch spread, applying an inch or more of sprinkler or drip irrigation to thoroughly wet the soil.

Remember that it's better to water with a good soaking less often than to build a shallow, dependent root system with light frequent wetting of the soil.

Fertilize gradually. A good rule of thumb is to apply 1 to 2 cups of lawn fertilizer per inch of trunk diameter every six to eight weeks beginning in spring and continuing on through late summer. Apply the fertilizer to the area beneath and just beyond the branch spread and scratch the surface with a rake to move it below the soil or mulch surface. Then water it in well.

Continue the supplemental watering and fertilizing at least for the first five years of the tree's life. Follow these steps and you can double or triple the rate of growth on your new trees. You'll be hanging that hammock sooner than you think!

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