What You Need to Know About Planting a Tree

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Planting a tree can be a significant investment, both in money and time.
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Find a complete guide to living simply and sustainably in “Self-Sufficiency.”

You will find a complete guide to living a simpler, more sustainable life in Self-Sufficiency (Skyhorse Publishing, 2010). Author Abigail R. Gehring offers practical advice as well as step-by-step instructions on hundreds of self-sufficient projects. In this excerpt taken from part one, “The Family Garden,” find what you need to know about planting a tree.

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: Self-Sufficiency.

More from Self-Sufficiency:

All About Goats
Starting a Farmers’ Market 

Trees in your yard can become home to many different types of wildlife. Planting a tree also reduces your cooling costs by providing shade, help clean the air, add beauty and color, provide shelter from the wind and the sun, and add value to your home.

Choosing a tree

Choosing a tree should be a well thought-out decision. Planting a tree can be a significant investment, both in money and time. Selecting the proper tree for your yard can provide you with years of enjoyment, as well as significantly increasing the value of your property. However, a tree that is inappropriate for your property can be a constant maintenance problem, or even a danger to your and others’ safety. Before you decide to purchase a tree, take advantage of the many references on gardening at local libraries, universities, arboretums, native plant and gardening clubs, and nurseries. Some questions to consider in selecting a tree include:

1. What purpose will this tree serve?
Trees can serve numerous landscape functions, including beautification, screening of sights and sounds, shade and energy conservation, and wildlife habitat.

2. Is the species appropriate for your area?
Reliable nurseries will not sell plants that are not suitable for your area. However, some mass marketers have trees and shrubs that are not fitted for the environment in which they are sold. Even if a tree is hardy, it may not flower consistently from year to year if the environmental factors are not conducive for it to do so. If you are buying a tree for its spring flowers and fall fruits, consider climate when deciding which species of tree to plant.

Be aware of microclimates. Microclimates are localized areas where weather conditions may vary from the norm. A very sheltered yard may support vegetation not normally adapted to the region. On the other hand, a north-facing slope may be significantly cooler or windier than surrounding areas, and survival of normally adapted plants may be limited.

Select trees native to your area. These trees will be more tolerant of local weather and soil conditions, will enhance natural biodiversity in your neighborhood, and be more beneficial to wildlife than many non-native trees. Avoid exotic trees that can invade other areas, crowd out native plants, and harm natural ecosystems.

3. How big will it get?
When planting a small tree, it is often difficult to imagine that in twenty years it will most likely be shading your entire yard. Unfortunately, many trees are planted and later removed when the tree grows beyond the dimensions of the property.

4. What is the average life expectancy of the tree?
Some trees can live for hundreds of years. Others are considered “short-lived” and may live for only twenty or thirty years. Many short-lived trees tend to be smaller, ornamental species. Short-lived species should not necessarily be ruled out when considering plantings, as they may have other desirable characteristics, such as size, shape, tolerance of shade, or fruit, that would be useful in the landscape. These species may also fill a void in a young landscape, and can be removed as other larger, longer-lived species mature.

5. Does it have any particular ornamental value, such as leaf color or flowers and fruits?
Some species provide beautiful displays of color for short periods in the spring or fall. Other species may have foliage that is reddish or variegated and can add color in your yard year round. Trees bearing fruits or nuts can provide an excellent source of food for many species of wildlife.

6. Does it have any particular insect, disease, or other problem that may reduce its usefulness in the future?
Certain insects and diseases can cause serious problems for some desirable species in certain regions. Depending on the pest, control of the problem may be difficult and the pest may significantly reduce the attractiveness, if not the life expectancy, of the tree. Other species, such as the silver maple, are known to have weak wood that is susceptible to damage in ice storms or heavy winds. All these factors should be kept in mind, as controlling pests or dealing with tree limbs that have snapped in foul weather can be expensive and potentially damaging.

7. How common is this species in your neighborhood or town?
Some species are over-planted. Increasing the natural diversity in your area will provide habitat for wildlife and help limit the opportunity for a single pest to destroy large numbers of trees.

8. Is the tree evergreen or deciduous?
Evergreen trees will provide cover and shade year round. They may also be more effective as wind and noise barriers. On the other hand, deciduous trees will give you summer shade but allow the winter sun to shine in. If planting a deciduous tree, keep these heating and cooling factors in mind when placing the tree in your yard.

Placement of trees

Proper placement of trees is critical for your enjoyment and for their long-term survival. Check with local authorities about regulations pertaining to placement of trees in your area. Some communities have ordinances restricting placement of trees within a specified distance from a street, sidewalk, streetlight, or other city utilities.

Before planting a tree, consider the tree’s potential maximum size. Ask yourself these simple questions:

1. When the tree nears maturity, will it be too close to your or a neighbor’s house? An evergreen tree planted on your north side may block the winter sun from your next-door neighbor.

2. Will it provide too much shade for your vegetable and flower gardens? Most vegetables and many flowers require considerable amounts of sun. If you intend to grow these plants in your yard, consider how the placement of trees will affect these gardens.

3. Will the tree obstruct any driveways or sidewalks?

4. Will it cause problems for buried or overhead power lines and utility pipes?

Once you have taken these questions into consideration and have bought the perfect tree for your yard, it is time to start digging!

Planting a tree

A properly planted and maintained tree will grow faster and live longer than one that is incorrectly planted. Trees can be planted almost any time of the year, as long as the ground is not frozen. Late summer or early fall is the optimum time to plant trees in many areas. By planting during these times, the tree has a chance to establish new roots before winter arrives and the ground freezes. When spring comes, the tree is then ready to grow. Another feasible time for planting trees is late winter or early spring. Planting a tree in hot summer weather should be avoided if possible as the heat may cause the young tree to wilt. Planting in frozen soil during the winter is very difficult, and is tough on tree roots. When the tree is dormant and the ground is frozen, there is no opportunity for the new roots to begin growing.

Trees can be purchased as container-grown, balled and burlapped (B&B), or bare root. Generally, container-grown are the easiest to plant and to successfully establish in any season, including summer. With container-grown stock, the plant has been growing in a container for a period of time. When planting container-grown trees, little damage is done to the roots as the plant is transferred to the soil. Container-grown trees range in size from very small plants in gallon pots up to large trees in huge pots.

B&B trees are dug from a nursery, wrapped in burlap, and kept in the nursery for an additional period of time, giving the roots opportunity to regenerate. B&B plants can be quite large.

Bare root trees are usually extremely small plants. Because there is no soil around the roots, they must be planted when they are dormant to avoid drying out, and the roots must be kept moist until planted. Frequently, bare root trees are offered by seed and nursery mail order catalogs, or in the wholesale trade. Many state-operated nurseries and local conservation districts also sell bare root stock in bulk quantities for only a few cents per plant. Bare root plants are usually offered in the early spring and should be planted as soon as possible.

Be sure to carefully follow the planting instructions that come with your tree. If specific instructions are not available, here are some general tree-planting guidelines:

1. Before starting any digging, call your local utility companies to identify the location of any underground wires or lines. In the United States, you can call 811 to have your utility lines marked for free.

2. Dig a hole twice as wide as, and slightly shallower than, the root ball. Roughen the sides and bottom of the hole with a pick or shovel so that the roots can easily penetrate the soil.

3. With a potted tree, gently remove the tree from the container. To do this, lay the tree on its side with the container end near the planting hole. Hit the bottom and sides of the container until the root ball is loosened. If roots are growing in a circular pattern around the root ball, slice through the roots on a couple of sides of the root ball. With trees wrapped in burlap, remove the string or wire that holds the burlap to the root crown; it is not necessary to remove the burlap completely. Plastic wraps must be completely removed. Gently separate circling roots on the root ball. Shorten exceptionally long roots and guide the shortened roots downward and outward. Root tips die quickly when exposed to light and air, so complete this step as quickly as possible.

4. Place the root ball in the hole. Leave the top of the root ball (where the roots end and the trunk begins) 1/2 to 1 inch above the surrounding soil, making sure not to cover it unless the roots are exposed. For bare root plants, make a mound of soil in the middle of the hole and spread plant roots out evenly over the mound. Do not set the tree too deep into the hole.

5. As you add soil to fill in around the tree, lightly tap the soil to collapse air pockets, or add water to help settle the soil. Form a temporary water basin around the base of the tree to encourage water penetration, and be sure to water the tree thoroughly after planting. A tree with a dry root ball cannot absorb water; if the root ball is extremely dry, allow water to trickle into the soil by placing the hose at the trunk of the tree.

6. Place mulch around the tree. A circle of mulch, 3 feet in diameter, is common.

7. Depending on the size of the tree and the site conditions, staking the tree in place may be beneficial. Staking supports the tree until the roots are well established to properly anchor it. Staking should allow for some movement of the tree on windy days. After trees are established, remove all supporting wires. If these are not removed, they can girdle the tree, cut into the trunk, and eventually kill the tree.

Tree maintenance

For the first year or two, especially after a week or so of especially hot or dry weather, watch your tree closely for signs of moisture stress. If you see any leaf wilting or hard, caked soil, water the tree well and slowly enough to allow the water to soak in. This will encourage deep root growth. Keep the area under the tree mulched.

Some species of evergreen trees may need protection against winter sun and wind. A thorough watering in the fall before the ground freezes is recommended. Fertilization is usually not needed for newly planted trees. Depending on the soil and growing conditions, fertilizer may be beneficial at a later time.

Young trees need protection against rodents, frost cracks, sunscald, lawn mowers, and weed whackers. In the winter months, mice and rabbits frequently girdle small trees by chewing away the bark at the snow level. Since the tissues that transport nutrients in the tree are located just under the bark, a girdled tree often dies in the spring when growth resumes. Weed whackers are also a common cause of girdling. In order to prevent girdling from occurring, use plastic guards, which are inexpensive and easy to control.

Frost cracking is caused by the sunny side of the tree expanding at a different rate than the colder, shaded side. This can cause large splits in the trunk. To prevent this, wrap young trees with paper tree wrap, starting from the base and wrapping up to the bottom branches. Sunscald can occur when a young tree is suddenly moved from a shady spot into direct sunlight. Light-colored tree wraps can be used to protect the trunk from sunscald.

Pruning a tree

Usually, pruning is not needed on newly planted trees. As the tree grows, lower branches may be pruned to provide clearance above the ground, or to remove dead or damaged limbs or suckers that sprout from the trunk. Sometimes larger trees need pruning to allow more light to enter the canopy. Small branches can be removed easily with pruners. Large branches should be removed with a pruning saw. All cuts should be vertical. This will allow the tree to heal quickly without the use of any artificial sealants. Major pruning should be done in late winter or early spring. At this time, the tree is more likely to “bleed,” as sap is rising through the plant. This is actually healthy and will help prevent invasion by many disease-carrying organisms.

Under no circumstance should trees be topped (topping is chopping off large top tree branches). Not only does this practice ruin the natural shape of the tree, but it increases its susceptibility to diseases and results in very narrow crotch angles (the angle between the trunk and the side branch). Narrow crotch angles are weaker than wide ones and more susceptible to damage from wind and ice. If a large tree requires major reduction in height or size, contact a professionally trained arborist.

Final thoughts

Trees are natural windbreaks, slowing the wind and providing shelter and food for wildlife. Trees can help protect livestock, gardens, and larger crops. They also help prevent dust particles from adding to smog over urban areas. Tree plantings are key components of an effective conservation system and can provide your yard with beauty, shade, and rich natural resources.

Reprinted with permission from Self-Sufficiency by Abigail R. Gehring and published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2010. Buy this book from our store: Self-Sufficiency.

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