Tree planting tips

Yesterday I was called in to look at some sickly plants.

The first tree, really a shrub, had failed at the base of the trunk. It looked like it had rotted out. Upon closer inspection I found an old irrigation head that had been engulfed by the trunk. I’ve seen this happen before. Landscape companies sometimes install irrigation heads too close to newly planted trees and shrubs. If they go unchecked then years later they can become engulfed. If they over water, the constant moist soil can cause root rot, sometimes even trunk rot. Eventually parts or all of the tree or shrub will die.

The second tree, a Thuja occidentalis, stood about 8 feet tall with a DBH (diameter at breast height) of 3-4 inches. The leaves had a grayish hue and looked dry.

The problems stemmed back from the time of planting.

The tree was still strapped to the original nursery stake. I gently rocked the trunk back and forth. I could see the outline of the original root ball moving in the ground. The outline was the size of a nursery pot. Not a good sign for a tree that has been in the ground for two years.

I probably could have picked it up out of the ground and put it right back into the pot it came in.

Here are some important planting tips:

1. When you plant a tree be VERY aggressive with breaking up the root ball. Don’t be shy. People often think that the roots are like the intestines of the tree. They aren’t. They are more like the underground branches and can be pruned just the same.

Confined a tiny pot in the nursery, young tree roots grow in circles and become woody. Unless they are pruned they will stay that way and possibly never grow normally.

So break up those root balls. Making clean cuts, cut the woody circling roots and spread out the succulent roots so that they flay outward. This encouraged them to grow normally, like in the direction of spokes on a bicycle wheel.

2. Make sure the root flair is above the soil level. Always plant high. Too high is better than too low, especially in soil with a high clay content.

Often trees in nursery pots have buried root flairs when you get them. Before you plant, make sure you locate the root flair. The root flair is the area where the trunk flairs out to the roots. When I plant trees from out of big nursery pots sometimes I have to remove as much as 6 to 8 inches of soil off the top. So don’t be surprised at how deep you may have to go. Just be gentle not to damage the trunk.

The root flair should always be above ground. It shouldn’t be buried by mulch either. So plant high, plant high, plant high. This goes for just about all plants. As far as I know, the only plant you should plant low are tomatoes.

3. When you plant a tree always remove the original stake that runs along the trunk. Replace it with two or three stakes placed just outside the root ball. Tie the tree up so that it moves slightly in the wind. This promotes strong, healthy roots.

4. The first thing you should do after planting is water. It’s a good idea to build a berm around the tree (or shrub) so that the water doesn’t just leech off into another part of the garden. I like to water by putting a garbage bag in a 15 gallon nursery pot, filling it with water and then poking a small hole in the bottom. This allows for a slow drip to deeply penetrate the roots without leeching. You can use a hose, running on low, but it’s super easy to forget to turn it off. Do this three times a week, rain or shine.