Proper Tree Planting
January 17, 2014
By Sam Hand
Photo by Sam Hand
Working with the Leon County Extension Office, I spend a great amount of my field time answering questions from concerned homeowners who want to plant trees in their yards. In a large percentage of cases, the problems can be prevented by using proper techniques when planting a new tree. Had proper techniques been used when planting or establishing the new tree, most of these problems could have been avoided.
Some of the most common mistakes include:
- Purchase of poor quality material
- Improper handling
- Planting too deep or in too small a hole
- Improper backfill techniques
- Improper watering and fertilization
- Improper pruning (either prior to purchase or after)
- Improper staking or guying
The following suggestions should help to avoid many of the common problems associated with improper planting of new trees.
- When selecting your new tree, you should accept only material that has been graded by the industry as “Florida No. 1 or Better”. This material has been properly grown in the nursery, and will not have disease, genetic flaws, “pot bound roots” or other problems which material graded “Florida No. 2” or “Culls” will have.
- Next, do not pick up trees by the trunk or limbs, lift the container. When removing the tree from the container, do not pull it out. Cut the container away from the root ball. This will avoid fracturing the soil which protects the young tender roots from damage and drying out.
- When digging the planting hole, the recommended width be at least three times as wide as the root ball. The depth of the hole should be such that ten percent of the root ball should be above the surrounding grade after planting. The sides of the hole should be sloped outward to the top of the hole.
- When backfilling, or refilling the hole, use the existing soil. It should be broken up and properly watered in after backfilling is complete. For the initial watering, completely flood the hole to remove any air pockets that would allow the roots to “dry out”.
- Do not fertilize at the time of planting. This can cause problems and has not been shown to be a beneficial factor in tree establishment. Fertilization should only be done after a season’s growth, and then only after testing the soil to see what, if any, nutrients are needed.
- For proper watering, use some of the remaining backfill soil to construct a “watering ring” around the tree, right at the edge of the root ball. This will allow you to place the water so that it moves directly down into the root ball. If the ring is placed at the edge of the planting hole, you will have to flood the entire hole to get water up into the top of the root ball. This is not good for the plant and also wastes water. Keep the ring around just the root ball.
- After planting and placing the water ring around the root ball, you may wish to mulch a few feet out from the water ring with two or three inches of pine straw or composted wood chips. This will help keep weed growth under control and will also conserve soil moisture and provide thermal protection for new roots growing out into the surrounding soil.
- Pruning should be limited to the removal of dead, dying, broken, diseased and interfering (crossing) branches.
- Staking or guying will usually not be required if the ratio of “root ball’ to “crown size” is right. If the plant has been properly “potted up” by the grower or nursery, the root ball should have sufficient mass to keep the tree stable and upright. However, if staking or guying is required, it should be installed so as to not damage the tree’s bark, and should be removed as soon as root development is adequate to keep the tree upright. This will avoid two problems: one, as the tree increases in diameter, guy wires can “girdle” the plant by choking off the vascular system under the bark, and second, trees need to be able to “flex” in order to develop structural cellulose. If this is not allowed, the tree may not be able to remain erect when the guy wires are finally removed.
Finally, there is one more thing, which if not done, will make all of the above effort a waste. You must “Pick the Right Tree for the Right Place”! The tree you select must be able to not only provide the function and aesthetics you may desire, but must also be compatible with the site environment, i.e., the light factor (sun or shade), the soil type, water availability, soil pH and temperature (hardiness).
So, taking the time to properly select, plant and establish your trees should lead to many years of enjoyment, free of the problems I see so often.
Sam Hand, Jr., is Extension Faculty at Florida A&M University. For more information about gardening in our area, visit the UF/ IFAS Leon County Extension website at http://leon.ifas.ufl.edu. For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov
Watch on WFSU’s TV show Dimensions, Stan Rosenthal UF/Leon County Extension Forester demonstrating how to plant a tree for best results.