Improper planting can turn your new sapling into 'upright kindling'


October 09, 1991|By Susan McGrath | Susan McGrath,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

So you've picked out the ideal species of tree for your yard. It will thrive in your soil, sun, draining conditions, climate and so on. And you've picked your plot. Now, go get the tree.

A good nursery is the best place to buy a seedling or a young tree. Once you get there, you'll have to decide how big a tree you want. The most obvious consideration is money: the bigger the tree, the more it will cost. Finances alone may dictate your choice. But let's say money isn't a deciding factor. Here are some guidelines from the experts, none of whom, naturally, agrees.

Global Releaf, a tree-planting program of the American Forestry Association, recommends that you buy a tree at least 3 years old in a one-gallon or larger container. This size has the advantage of looking like a tree right off the bat. If you need a big tree urgently to screen you from some monstrosity next door, by all means get the biggest you can afford.

Other experts recommend you go with something a lot smaller. TreePeople Andy and Kate Lipkis, in their book, "The Simple Act of Planting a Tree," write:

"A rule of thumb is that the smaller the tree is when planted, the sooner it becomes established and resumes vigorous growth. The more time a tree spends in a container, the more confined the roots become. The tree will grow slowly and its ability to establish itself in a new environment will be diminished."

Writing in Garbage magazine, horticulturist Robert Kourik says, "Far too often, people buy large trees to make an instant impression, only to watch the tree decline and turn into upright kindling. After planting, smaller trees which haven't outgrown their container will quickly outgrow larger, root-bound trees."

All the experts agree, however, that you need to choose a specimen that has not outgrown its container. Check carefully: Are the roots starting to circle around the inside of the container? Ask an expert at the nursery to help you choose a tree that is not pot-bound.

Now you're ready to dig. Here is what Global ReLeaf suggests:

* Prepare a planting area as deep as the root ball and three to five times its diameter by loosening the soil. (The roots of your tree will eventually be as much as three times wider than the canopy of the tree, so loosen as wide a circle as you can.)

* Dig a hole in the middle and set the root ball even with ground level. (TreePeople recommend setting the ball an inch or so higher than ground level because any soil piled against the trunk can cause it to rot. If the tree you bought has bare roots, mound soil in the hole and spread the roots carefully over it. Then cover with soil as with a root ball.)

* Use water to settle soil and remove air pockets. (This is important, since contact with air will kill the tender root hairs. Kourik recommends watering first, then stepping carefully onto the mound to eliminate the air pockets.)

* Stake the tree only if it is unable to stand up to the wind. (Most experts recommend that you never stake a tree unless you are planting it in the teeth of constant, howling winds. A tree needs to learn to stand on its own. If you must stake the tree, stake it loosely, so that it can flex.)

* Spread a two- to three-inch layer of mulch on the entire area, but not within six inches of the trunk. (TreePeople recommend covering the entire planting area with bark, wood chips, old sawdust, pine needles, leaves or even gravel.) Leave a circle around the trunk bare, since the mulch will cause the trunk to rot.

* When planting a seedling, protect it from damage by lawn mowers, pets, etc., and water as needed to keep it from drying out, especially during its first summer. Water beyond the edge of the canopy to encourage the roots to grow outward. How frequently you should water and for how many months depends on your climate and soil.

Call your local branch of the Cooperative Extension Service to get advice on this.

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