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Bill Pramuk: Trees and People: Planting a tree
Trees and People

Bill Pramuk: Trees and People: Planting a tree

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In the vast natural history of life on land, long before we people appeared, trees managed to get planted. They just let go of their seeds and natural forces did the rest. It is a hit-and-miss process with a great majority of trees never becoming established. But when we want a particular tree at a particular location, we need a high rate of success. Planting a tree can be a satisfying act, especially if successful in the long run.

Let’s assume we have selected a well-drained, sunny location with good soil and an appropriate tree for the site. Planting it well means avoiding common pitfalls. Here are some of them and how to avoid them (The illustration is courtesy of Joseph P. Pramuk):

1. Planting a hole too narrow to allow for vigorous root system expansion.

What to do: Loosen the soil to a diameter equal to at least three times the nursery container diameter. The digging is a lot easier when the soil is moist. Trials have shown that amendments – like planting mix — have limited long-term value in shade tree planting.

2. Tree planted too low, or it sinks below grade after planting, leading to poor vigor and root disease.

What to do: Do not dig the hole too deep. Determine the distance between the natural root collar/top structural roots and the bottom of the root ball. That measurement equals the proper depth of the hole. The bottom of the root ball should sit on undisturbed soil.

3. Pot-bound root balls are hard to moisten with irrigation and have circling, girdling roots that result in structural instability and poor vigor.

What to do: Aggressively loosen pot bound root balls. Spread out or cut circling roots. It is better to risk losing the tree at this stage than years later when it becomes unstable or fails to thrive.

4. Irrigation fails to moisten the root ball.

What to do: Build a soil berm surrounding the tree so it guides water into the root ball and the prepared root zone. With drip irrigation, place emitters directly on top of the root ball until the tree is well-rooted into the surrounding soil.

5. Stakes provide too much support and ties damage the trunk. Trunks fail to gain strength.

What to do: Remove the nursery stakes. Assess the current ability of the trunk to support the crown of branches and to stand vertical. Consider site wind patterns. If stakes are needed, drive two stakes on opposite sides, outside the root ball and into undisturbed subsoil. If the trunk is very strong, stakes may be very short, with ties only to hold the root ball steady until it is well established. If the trunk needs support, place ties no higher than necessary to hold the trunk vertical, with a minimal number of flexible ties. Cut off the tops of the stakes just above the ties so they don’t rub and damage the branches.

6. Young tree trunk is subject to sun injury. This results from intermittent drought stress, lack of low temporary branches to shade the trunk, and certain species being more susceptible than others.

What to do: Retain short, low temporary branches to shade and strengthen the trunk. Provide consistent irrigation. For tender trunks exposed to direct sunlight and reflected heat, paint with white water-based paint or wrap with white tree wrap.

Young nursery-grown trees need a few essentials to get them off to a good start for long term success in the landscape. In a larger sense, we need trees more than they need us. Where would we be without them?

Watch now: Walk of Life! Here’s How to Make Your Walks More Exciting

Bill Pramuk is a registered consulting arborist. Visit his website, email questions to or call him at 707-363-0114.

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