April is a great time to plant a tree because trees have emerged from dormancy. The typical dry Spring season allows one some control of how much water the tree gets and the rains of summer will soon assist in the establishment period. But planting a tree isn’t as simple as digging a hole and dropping the tree in. Each year the Extension office receives a number of calls about trees that seem to have stopped growing after several years or about trees whose top branches are dying. Often these problems occur from improper planting. Taking time to do the job right at planting will insure the tree grows in coming years.
A first step in success when planting trees is examination of the soil type, drainage and shade patterns. Most trees do best in well-drained soils with a minimum of six hours sunlight each day and limited competition from other trees. Check for overhead power lines and consider sidewalks, driveways and drainfield locations when siting a tree. Roots can be very damaging and many want to be right on or near the soil surface so think carefully about the long-term consequences when locating a tree.
Begin by digging a hole that is two times as wide and slightly shallower than the root ball. Loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole to aid in root establishment. Pull the tree from the pot and observe the root ball. Roots should be established enough to hold the root ball together, but not so growthy that they completely fill the pot. In round pots roots often begin to grow in a circular direction around the outer edge of the pot. When this happens roots will continue this circuitous growth which over time girdles and kills the tree. It is critical to cut roots apart to interrupt this growth pattern. Often taking a knife or an old saw and cutting along the edge of the rootball, just inside the pot is an effective way to accomplish this. Note that the survival rate for plants that are heavily pot bound is diminished by this condition.
Place the tree carefully in the hole and backfill using the existing material. The tree must perform in this soil, so resist the temptation to backfill with peat or compost. Pack the material around the root ball firmly, but do not compact.
Water is critical for a new tree and there is a thin margin between too much and not enough. Over several years I have found the following method to be almost fail-safe in delivering the proper amount of water. After planting prepare a soil berm around the tree about 8 inches high and about 3 feet away from the trunk. Using a garden hose, fill the moat with water and turn the hose off when the water nears the top of the berm. Allow the water to seep into the soil around the tree. Repeat this daily for the first two weeks, then every other day for the next three weeks. After five weeks, water two times a week, three and four days apart for the next four weeks. The arrival of June is usually accompanied by the beginning of the summer rains and trees that were planted in April should be established enough to survive on natural rainfall unless we hit a period of drought for several days. Monitor weather and supplement water if needed.
Trees purchased from quality producers should not need fertilizer until after they have been in the ground for at least 60 days. After 60 days lightly top dress around the surface of the root area using a granular 15-0-15 slow release fertilizer. Avoid the use of fertilizer stakes as these concentrate fertilizer in a small area and feed only a few of the roots.
While Florida has an arbor day the third Friday in January, the national arbor day is always the last Friday in April. In reality late March or early April is a great time to plant trees in north central Florida. After hand watering for several weeks, the summer rains begin and offer relief to the daily watering routine. When the drier days of October and November arrive, remember to water occasionally as needed, to carry the tree into dormancy. Having been out of the watering routine several months it is easy to forget this and if we have a dry fall a tree planted the previous spring may die. An inch and a half of water every 10 – 14 days in fall is a good goal for keeping trees healthy.
Why not select a tree that will be a good addition to your yard and enjoy the arbor day tradition? Just take care to plant it correctly so that it will grow and thrive.