When it comes to choosing and planting trees, most of us use our hearts, not our heads. We select a tree because its foliage is beautiful, flowers are colorful, shade is desired, or it reminds us of a special time in childhood.
At planting time we might not consider utility lines overhead, the leach lines of the septic tank below or a neighbor's property line. It is hard to believe that at planting time the cute little tree, with a trunk no thicker than a fat cigar, may grow to be a monster with roots that can lift the cement driveway or crack the foundation of a house.
This month, many trees will be planted because of Arbor Day, March 7. Although the day is celebrated in April or May in most states, California selected its day to commemorate the birthday of famed horticulturist Luther Burbank.
Arbor Day's roots go to Nebraska, where on April 10, 1872, more than a million trees were planted in that open, treeless prairie state. Other states, noting Nebraska's success, hopped on the bandwagon. When the National Education Association took up the cause, Arbor Day became a tradition throughout the country.
You might celebrate Arbor Day this month by planting a tree or two. Select a tree that is compatible with our climate zone. If you have a small yard, choose a patio-type, or dwarf tree. Ask the nursery person about the tree's cultural requirements so you can satisfy its needs in the future. Some trees, such as Japanese maple, are ideal for small yards, but they need a sheltered location because of harsh coastal winds. Consider how fast the tree will grow. Will the tree you prefer need special or frequent pruning?
Find out about the tree's rooting habits. Some trees have shallow surface roots that will damage patios, walks, driveways and foundations. Some trees are litter bugs, dropping fruit, shredded bark, sap, leaves and flowers. Some trees have weak, brittle wood that can split and break in the wind.
Once you've selected a tree that satisfies your aesthetic and practical needs, take time to plant it correctly so that it will grow quickly and to its fullest potential. There are three ways you will find a tree packaged for sale at the nursery: containerized, balled-in-burlap and bare root. Bare root trees are sold in the winter and early spring. They have no soil surrounding roots, and must be planted immediately upon arriving home from the nursery.
Before planting bare root trees, trim off any broken or twisted roots. Look at the trunk and find the location of the original soil line. Set the tree in a hole that is at least 50 percent wider and deeper than the root mass.
Don't plant it any deeper than the soil line indicates on the trunk. Spread the roots out evenly in the hole and gently add backfill soil, making sure there are no air pockets.
Balled-in-burlap trees need special treatment. These trees have been dug out of the fields with the root mass, then wrapped in burlap. When planting, dig a large hole, as you would for bare root.
Carefully set the ball in the ground so the soil line of the tree in the ball is at the same level. Ask the nursery person if the burlap has been treated with a rot-retarding substance. If it has, you will have to remove the burlap.
It is best to leave the burlap around the sensitive roots if possible. If the burlap can be left intact, slice the sides and bottom so that roots can easily penetrate the soil.
Remove the ties and gently fill the hole with soil, lightly tamping around the root mass with your foot as you fill the hole. Be sure to cut the burlap from around the trunk, peeling it back and making certain all the edges are buried well below the soil surface. If the burlap is allowed to be exposed to the surface it will act as a wick and dry out the root ball.
Container-grown trees are the ones most often found at nurseries. Gently remove the root mass from the can. If it is stubborn, cut the container from the root mass. Inspect the root mass and cut, or pull away any kinked and matted roots.
Heavily root-bound trees should be avoided. Don't buy big trees in little cans with roots poking out of the drain holes. Be sure to dig a hole large enough to fit the root ball without crowding or cramming roots. Set the tree at the soil level in the can.
You do not need to add any organic matter to the backfill soil when planting trees. It is best to use native soil that is not amended.
Keep at least a two-foot diameter circle around the base of the newly planted tree free of weeds so the tree will not have to compete for moisture and nutrients. This area also protects the tree trunk from the mower blight, which is the result of banging the lawn mower up against the tree trunk when cutting the grass.
Mulch with a good organic material such as compost, leaf mold or wood chips. Keep mulch an inch or two away from the trunk. Top dress newly planted trees in the spring with a high-nitrogen fertilizer. Young trees need to be watered deeply at least once a week during the summer and early fall for the first year or two until they become established.
Some newly planted trees need to be staked the first year after planting. It is best to ask the nursery person for a diagram for staking landscape trees.
DO NOT plaster a stake against the trunk with twist ties. This method, although unfortunately prevalent and popular, does not adequately support the tree and also damages the bark.
When properly planted in the landscape, trees do wonderful things for the environment, besides adding lasting beauty. They save energy. Trees can cut heating and air conditioning bills. A wind barrier of evergreen trees planted on the north or west sides of the house can cut 10 to 40 percent off the winter fuel bill.
Trees are green machines that naturally purify the air. In one year the average tree absorbs 26 pounds of carbon dioxide, the amount of exhaust emitted by an automobile that travels 11,000 miles a year. At the same time it produces enough oxygen to keep a family of four breathing for a year.
Terry Kramer is a Bayside free-lance writer who specializes in gardening and horticulture.
- Don't throw away your garden garbage. Make a compost pile out of grass clippings, weeds that haven't gone to seed, manures and vegetable scraps. Do not use diseased plant material, cat or dog feces, untreated sewage sludge or barbecue ashes.
- Newly planted fruit trees, roses and berries should be mulched with a thick blanket of compost, manure or dried grass clippings. Lay down a layer of newspaper or cardboard before mulching to help deter weeds.
- Add manure, compost and fertilizers to vegetable garden soils and flower beds.
- Feed roses, annuals and perennials with a complete fertilizer that is high in phosphorus. Evergreen landscape trees and shrubs should be fed with fertilizers high in nitrogen. Feed the lawn.
- Set out transplants of broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, lettuce, kale and collards. Sow seed of spinach, beets, turnips, radishes and peas. Plant onion from seed, sets or transplants.
- Watch out for aphids on tips of roses, fruit trees, all annuals and perennials. Hose them off with a stiff spray of water or use insecticidal soap. Don't get the soap on flowers. It can damage them. Aphids can be especially troublesome in home greenhouses, so look out. After setting out transplants, protect them from slugs and snails.
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