Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Several years ago I heard the saying, "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now." While I understood the truth of this statement when I originally heard it, it didn't really have personal significance to me until fairly recently. It was becoming a homeowner that made this statement take on new meaning to me.
Adding to this new meaning was the fact that we were new homeowners of a new house with no landscaping whatsoever. Having a new yard with absolutely no landscaping was a blessing and a curse. While it was nice to be able to plant things wherever we wanted, sometimes this could be a bit overwhelming both from a design and financial perspective.
While our overall landscaping plans were a huge source of debate, what we knew for sure was that trees were first on our planting list. When you have no trees, you sure do miss them and want some immediately! I'll bet a lot of households in the Decatur area are thinking the same thing after losing trees to storms this winter. Choosing to replace a tree or plant an entirely new tree is only the first choice of many you need to make when planting trees.
Trees are available as bare root, container grown, or balled and burlapped for planting in your landscape. Bare root specimens are very small, and balled and burlapped tend to me much larger, with container grown trees are somewhere in the middle.
This difference in size also translates to a difference in price. I had some major sticker shock when I saw how much our balled and burlapped trees cost. This was all the more reason to make sure we were planting our trees correctly.
Before choosing trees, choose your site. Choosing the right placement for your trees will make all the difference in years to come. A tree place too close to your home for instance, will create problems down the road. Two big problems that may develop are squirrels and other wildlife may gain access to your roof (and possibly your home), and the potential for home damage from tree limbs falling on your home during storms.
Carefully placing your trees can help conserve energy and ultimately lower your utility bills.
The west side of your home is a great place to plant a tree, especially if you have a lot of windows on that side. As you have probably experienced, west-facing windows trap a lot of the sun's heat during the summer, making air-conditioners run overtime to try and cool the building. Shading that side of your home with a well-placed tree will help eliminate that heat build-up.
But what about the winter? Don't we want to capture heat during the winter months? Of course we do–but since the sun is lower in the sky during the winter and most of this winter sunshine comes in through our south-facing windows, it makes sense to keep southern exposures free of trees so the winter sun can shine in.
To combat the cold winter winds, consider planting trees along both the western and northern exposures of your home. Ideally, a windbreak of trees will direct the cold winter winds up and over your home instead of allowing the wind to slam into your home and force its way inside.
Choosing specific trees for your landscape can be fun and challenging at the same time. There are hundreds of trees to choose from, where should you start? For best results, you'll have to do some homework. There are many resources available free of charge to help you make good tree choices.
There are websites available that allow you to plug in your landscape conditions and see a suggested list of trees. U of I Extension has a helpful website at: www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/treeselector/ .
If you have a few favorite trees but are not sure whether they will grow well in your landscape, my favorite website is the U of I Plants database: http://woodyplants.nres.uiuc.edu . This database tells you all about how to grow specific trees and shrubs, plus provides pictures of many of them, often including close-ups of the bark, leaves, and other features like flowers.
If the internet is not your thing, and you want some one-on-one assistance, you can always call the U of I Master Gardeners in Macon County at (217) 877-6872 or even stop by the office. Your local nursery or garden center is also a great place to get first-hand opinions and advice about which trees grow well in our area.
So you've chosen the site and the kind of tree, now just buy one and plant it, right? Not quite. When looking at trees for sale, buy the best quality you can. This may mean buying a smaller tree, but in the long run will save you a lot of work and may even save you from replacing the tree in a few years. If a tree looks distressed, diseased, or weak, your best choice is another tree.
Trees that wobble in their pot or burlap probably don't have good root systems. Container-grown trees that have a mass of circling roots in the pot are the other extreme. These roots will continue to grow in circles unless they are removed, and even then it can take longer than usual for a tree like this to establish itself in the landscape.
When ready to plant, think about digging a planting bowl rather than a planting hole. Generally speaking, most of a tree's roots are in the top 12 to 18 inches of soil. Digging a deep hole does nothing to help the roots grow out into the soil. A nice wide hole creates a soil environment that new roots can penetrate easily and allow the tree to establish and anchor itself in the landscape.
The U of I does not recommend amending the soil in the planting hole. The thinking behind this is that amendments in the planting hole creates a region of slightly better soil that the roots are happy to stay in rather than branching out into the surrounding soil. If the roots don't extend out into the surrounding soil then anchoring and establishment of the tree is slowed.
Although I understand this reasoning, I have personally encountered soils that are nearly impossible to plant in as is. I have talked to people that had to use a pickax to make their planting hole because the soil was extremely heavy clay. Instead of a pile of soil next to the planting site, it was hard clay chunks. In those cases I would consider a 50/50 mix of topsoil or compost along with the native soil so that there is good soil contact around the new planting instead of a loose pile of clay chunks.
You might remember being taught that trees shouldn't be planted deeper than they were in the pot or the burlap. This is still true, but more often than not they are actually too deep in the pot or burlap to start with. Don't be afraid to remove some of the soil near the base of the tree to look for the trunk flare, the area that gets a little wider. Think of how a child typically draws a tree with the little slope at the base. This really exists. Look for it. This is the depth at which the tree should be planted, or even a little above to allow for settling. Trees planted deeper than the trunk flare will likely develop problems with the roots in future years.
After planting, your job is still not done. Adding a layer of mulch around a newly planted tree will help conserve moisture and suppress competing weeds. Mulch should not touch the trunk, but should be arranged to create a dish or bowl shape about two to four inches deep with the tree in the center. This helps direct water towards the tree.
Research shows that trees establish themselves more quickly in the landscape if they are not staked. Being rocked by the wind actually stimulates roots to grow and anchor the tree. I know this to be physiologically true, but practically speaking if your tree is uprooted by the wind, that doesn't do much for root growth! If you live in a very windy area, it may be a good choice to stake your tree. There are lots of systems out there, but whatever you choose make sure that it does not injure the bark of the tree. Bark injury can result in disease or even limb or total tree death. Remember to remove the staking after about a year of growth.
Keep the soil moist but not soggy around your tree after planting. If the soil under the mulch is dry, it's time to water. The first season after planting it is crucial to keep your tree well watered to help it establish. Keep in mind though, that for at least the first two years of growth your trees will need extra water when there are extended dry periods in the summer. In extreme drought conditions, even established trees need water!