Branching Out

The Hidden Life of Trees book is a must-read for all nature-lovers!

[Because there are many trees in The Jungle, their care and well-being is a subject near and dear to the Silverback heart. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben is highly-recommended book that explores the rich and hitherto unknown complexity of how trees are connected to their family, community, and environment. SB SM]

by Dorothy Rieke

Trees play a vital role in providing habitat, beauty and utility in our surroundings. Deciduous trees disrupt the wind and shade our homes from the hot summer sun, and during winter months, bare trees allow sunshine through and still offer some protection from the wind. Many coniferous evergreens grow large enough to serve as windbreaks and offer all manner of cover for wildlife. Flowering trees including dogwood, cherry, lilac and tulip soften the landscape by providing beautiful living art, while fruit and nut trees produce nutritious foods.

A tree is a lifetime investment that may not pay the biggest dividends for generations. However, like many long-term investments, with thoughtful choosing, careful planning, care and nurturing, trees will provide substantial value to your landscape from the very beginning. It’s a long-term proposition that can pay off big-time if you follow these tips.

Location is everything

For the best return on your tree investment, choose the species or cultivar and its intended location carefully. Begin by determining the tree’s growth habit, mature age and size in your region, tendency to send large limbs crashing to the ground as it matures, and the likelihood that its roots will seek out and clog sewer lines or leach fields. If you don’t enjoy cleaning gutters, keep things like seed production and leaf drop in mind as well.

Does your tree like full sun, partial sun or a shady spot? Does it have a taproot? How does it do in clay soils, wet soils, dry soils, sand – you get the picture. Once you know what you wish to plant, it’s time to locate it.

Depending on the size of the tree and whether it is dormant bare-root stock, balled and burlapped, container grown, or freshly dug with a tree spade, you will need to create a relatively large hole to receive the tree. Ideally you will locate it away from overhead powerlines and cables, and a safe distance from buried pipelines, powerlines, fiber-optic cables and other subterranean obstacles. (Call 811 to be sure.) If there are buildings in the vicinity, plan to locate your tree a minimum of 18 inches plus half the mature canopy width away from the structure. If your species is prone to blowing over in certain circumstances, you may want the tree to be at least as far from the structure as its eventual mature height. Plan now and prevent heartache or worse later.

A hole double the width of the root ball is sufficient when planting trees.

Dig deep

To minimize stress on transplants, follow a few simple tips.

When transplanting trees, be sure to dig a hole wide enough for the root system to establish itself in its new location – about twice the diameter of the container or root ball. If transplanting container-grown or balled stock, be sure to gently pull and loosen the roots so they don’t retain the memory of the container they were previously in. Feel free to trim back any long pieces of root along with a good pruning of the aerial portion of the tree. The trick is to give that root a head start and not tax it with too much above-ground structure to support in that first season. But watch the depth.

Situate the tree in the hole so the crown (where the roots and trunk meet) is no more than a couple of inches below ground level. With container-grown stock, situate the tree so the soil surface in the container is roughly even with or up to an inch above grade. Planting too deep can be just as damaging as not planting deep enough. Once situated in the hole, backfill slowly with well-crumbled soil and pack it gently so there are no air pockets around the roots. Water it in, brace it with guy lines if recommended and be prepared to keep a close eye on it for the next couple of years.

Take care

If the tree is planted in fine-textured soil with high levels of clay or silt, the tree should receive about 1 inch of water each week, or about a 5-gallon bucket’s worth (depending on the size) during the growing season. In easily drained soils, 2 inches of water per week is more appropriate. When planting, making a well around the base of the tree helps contain water so it seeps into the roots rather than running off.

Adequate rainfall reduces the need for frequent watering, and automatic lawn irrigation systems may actually deliver too much moisture for newly planted trees causing root damage or even death. A rule of thumb is to water until the soil has a cakelike texture, and the water seeps slowly into the ground. If in doubt, be sure to ask plenty of questions from experts in your area. In general, it is better to water deeply and less frequently than the other way around.

While a newly transplanted tree grows in its first year, it draws from stored energy within its trunk, branches and roots. Root growth especially depends on the carbohydrates drawn from the leaves of the tree. During this formative period of growth, perhaps one of the most important post-planting practices to improve the health and vitality of a young tree is mulching.

Mulching with wood chips can nearly double a tree’s growth in the first few years after planting – primarily by protecting the root zone from wide in-season temperature swings and moisture variation. It also provides a well-groomed appearance, helps keep weeds and grass from competing with the tree, and prevents mower damage, a leading cause of injury and death to growing trees. It also prevents soil erosion, and as mulch decomposes, it adds to the soil’s organic matter. Mulching materials vary widely, and different types will do some jobs better than others. Ask your local garden center which type would best suit your environment and tree species being planted.

The mulched area should be at least 2 feet or more around the base of the tree, but not directly up against the trunk of the tree; pull it away from the trunk several inches to create a donut hole. A 3- to 4-inch layer of organic wood chips or shavings, bark or similar materials is sufficient. A mulch layer thicker than 4 inches may create excessively moist conditions and harbor small rodents, insects, diseases and such harmful to young trees, especially during winter months. Mulch diameter ideally extends to the drip line of the branches, but after a few years this is not practical.

In poor, highly compacted soils, heavy mulch may cause shallow root growth, which makes the transplant particularly vulnerable to drought.

Trees represent a considerable investment in time, but they also play a large role in our environment and bring joy with their beauty. The shade offered by most trees will lower cooling bills, they make great windbreaks helping to lower your heating bills, and fruit and nut trees are a great food source for a homestead. Take time to select the right tree for your landscape, and care for it wisely because your investment will reap many dividends.

Published previously in Green Living Journal. Excerpted from GRIT, Celebrating Rural America Since 1882. To read more visit Copyright 2015 by Ogden Publications Inc. Photo of tree with tire swing also by Rick Wetherbee.

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