First posted on 04-27-2010
By Benjamin Waldrum, U of A Division of Agriculture
With proper planting, a tree will establish quickly and begin a long and prosperous life, said Jim Robbins, extension horticulture specialist-ornamentals with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.
An oft-heard proverb is that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the next best time is today. In Arkansas, however, the optimal time to plant is in the spring and fall.
Trees can be planted any time of year, of course, but spring and fall planting is a bit easier from a watering standpoint.
“While the major focus has always been on planting in the spring, fall is another prime season for planting,” said Robbins. Planting hardy trees and shrubs in the fall allows the plants to form a good root system before they have to contend with the state’s hot and humid summers. “As the leaves begin to fall and the trees go dormant, plant away,” he said.
Trees are sold three ways: container-grown, balled-and-burlap or bare-root. Container plants can be planted year-round if given proper care. Balled-and-burlapped trees are primarily harvested in spring so they are readily available at this time of year. Bare-root trees are only available in early spring.
Consider any potential obstacles before choosing a tree.
“When planting trees, look up,” said Robbins. “Trees need ample room to form a natural shape and canopy, so don’t plant them under or near power lines. Today, many power lines and cables run underground. Know where these lines run before digging.”
A tree will grow wider as it gets older. Think about what it will look like at full size and take that into account when planting.
“Normally, we don’t want to plant a shade tree any closer than 15 feet from the foundation of the building,” said Robbins.
Pick a tree well-suited to the conditions of the lawn. For example, if the lawn has moist, boggy soil, choose a tree that likes moisture.
“Working within the parameters you have makes life a lot easier on you and the tree,” he said.
Now that the tree has been selected, what’s next?
Dig a hole that is a minimum of two times as wide as the plant’s root ball, but only as deep as the root ball is. Don’t replace the existing soil.
“Many gardeners throw away the rocky, poor soil and backfill with potting soil or other rich amendment,” said Robbins. “That is not going to help the plant at all.”
Instead, amend the fill by mixing organic matter with the existing soil. By amending a wide area and digging a wide berth, the tree’s root system will be encouraged to spread into the surrounding soil. Leaving some of the original soil in the hole will allow the tree to better adapt to its surroundings.
“If you can’t amend a wide area, don’t amend at all,” said Robbins.
Keep the depth of the hole only as deep as the root ball to allow for natural settling of the soil. The majority of the tree’s roots will develop in the top foot of soil. If the tree is planted too deep, new roots will suffer from a lack of oxygen.
Do not fertilize when planting the tree.
Once the tree is planted, apply mulch around it to a depth of 2 to 4 inches. Mulch moderates soil moisture and temperature and keeps weeds away. Mulching in a wide berth also prevents ‘lawnmower disease’ - that is, accidental damage done to the base of trees. Allow some space between the mulch and the stem of the tree. This will deter rodents from settling near the tree and nibbling on its tender trunk.
Once planted, water is the most important factor for success. Too much or too little water can kill a tree. “Make sure the site is well-drained, and water deeply to encourage root formation,” said Robbins.
Remember to pay attention to the weather. If there’s been no natural rainfall for several weeks, the tree will need to be watered, even when it’s cold outside.
If the tree is structurally sound, staking should not be necessary. However, if you have a tall or large tree with a fairly small root system, or live in an area with high winds, or have trees that have suffered storm damage, occasional staking may be needed.
Use two or three stakes with a flexible tie material. “You want to allow some natural movement, so don’t stake too tightly,” said Robbins. Cover the ties with a piece of hose tubing where they wrap around the trunk to prevent the tie from cutting into the tree. Remove any ties or staking after the first year of growth.
Trees last a long time, so plant with permanence and plant with pride. Arbor Day is just around the corner.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon proclaimed the last Friday in April as National Arbor Day. Many states, however, including Arkansas, observe Arbor Day at different times of the year to coincide with the best tree-planting weather.
Since 1973, Arkansas has observed Arbor Day on the third Monday in March. National Arbor Day will be observed April 30 this year.
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