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How to plant a tree this May

Planting a variety of trees improves the look of property and helps the environment too.
Planting a variety of trees improves the look of property and helps the environment too.
Kim Willis

May is a great month to plant a tree in planting zones 3-6, the northern to middle parts of the United States. After a winter where many trees were broken or lost completely it’s time to help nature heal itself. In fact there is more reason than ever to plant trees. Trees help regulate the climate and they become even more important as our climate changes. When trees emit water vapor during transpiration they are also unlocking water stored in the soil and returning it to the atmosphere. Without rain we couldn’t grow crops very well and our world would be a dry and barren place.

A real estate agent will tell you that large, mature, well cared for trees add value to your property and make it easier to sell. And who can deny the beauty of trees as well as all the useful products they supply us with, including food? It is said that you plant trees for your grandchildren. Even if you don’t have children or grandchildren someone in the future will be pleased that you planted a tree. One should always replace a tree that you have had to remove, maybe with a more suitable tree for the area, but always keeping the balance Nature is working to achieve.

Several studies of urban trees have found that more than 2/3 of the trees in cities were from natural regeneration; they grew from seeds floating in the air or carried in by animals and were not deliberately planted. However the remaining third of trees in a city, those planted by us, had a somewhat higher survival rate and were healthier overall. This is probably because they were more valuable specimens, and because if you plant something you tend to care for it.

Tree planting decisions

So what is the best way to plant a tree? First choose a tree suitable for the area you want to plant it. You can find a tree that will grow in almost any situation. Make sure you take the adult size of the tree into account as you choose and plant it, making sure there will be room for it when it’s grown. How many of you have seen (or planted yourself) those beautiful young blue spruce trees planted up close to a house, in front of windows or too close to driveways? After ten or 15 years of growth they have to be cut down or moved in a very expensive maneuver. When choosing a spot to plant a tree look up and see if there are any overhead utility wires that will result in the power company wacking the top off the tree just as it gets beautiful.

Give your tree room to grow. Leave enough space between trees so they aren’t distorted and crowded as they grow. Those tiny twigs you plant look so small it’s tempting to put them too close together but consult a reference and give each tree the space it needs when it is an adult.

Next dig your hole twice as wide as it is deep. It should be as deep as the root system of the tree you are planting. However one of the biggest mistakes people make in planting trees is to plant them too deep. Look for the top horizontal root, the root that goes sideways. This root should only be about 2 inches below the soil surface. This will allow the tree to form a “flare”, a wider base just above the roots that makes for a healthier and stronger tree.

Remove pots, even peat pots from the roots. Remove at least the top half of the burlap in a balled and burlap root ball. If you do not see that top horizontal root gently scrape away soil until you do, so you can properly place it in a hole. Often as trees are “balled” or re-potted at a nursery that primary horizontal root gets buried too deeply. Removing peat pots and burlap also avoids the wicking away of moisture from the roots and lets the roots expand rapidly into the surrounding soil.

Refill your hole with the soil you took out, even if you think it isn’t very good soil. Research has proven that this is the best way to get your tree growing well. You can mix in some tree fertilizer with the soil but avoid throwing it in a heap at the bottom of the hole. Don’t add peat, topsoil or other things to the soil. This hinders rather than encourages root growth.

Water your tree after planting and keep it watered during its first year if conditions are dry. Don’t put more than 3 inches of mulch around the tree and keep mulch from touching the trunk of the tree. Protect the trunk of young trees from animals including humans with mowers and weed whips. A mulch circle helps but you may need a circle of wire or a tree tube. Tree tubes are great for small deciduous trees, especially valuable ones or those that are hard to start. These are translucent fiberglass tubes with open tops that act as a semi-greenhouse; they protect trees from wind, cold and animals. They need a stake to hold them in place but you won’t need to stake the tree. They also encourage a straight, un-branched trunk until the tree is over the tube height. Remove the tubes when the tree grows well above them, usually in a couple years. I cut tree tubes in half to protect things like shrubs and vines.

Here’s another important tree planting tip. Remove all tags, wires and strings from the tree after planting. These will cut off circulation as the tree grows and kill a branch or worse the whole tree if the string is around the trunk. If you want to keep the tag with the tree so you remember what you planted, put it on a stake near the tree.

Trees for small gardens

Love trees but have little room in the garden to plant them? There are many small trees that won’t hit the power lines and are easy to fit into small spaces. Trees add vertical lines to the garden and pleasing structure. Here are some to consider. Maples, some Japanese maple varieties and other maples for example Snake bark maple, (A. grosseri), and Moose bark maple, A. griseum, are good for small areas. Redbuds, ninebark, magnolia, strawberry tree, birches, dogwoods, hawthorns, sand cherries ( purple leaf cherries),weeping cherries, weeping peach, wisteria trained to tree form, crabapples( height varies, look for smaller types), Golden Chain Tree, cotoneaster, bristly locust, “Lace Lady” or “Twisty Baby” locust, purple smoke tree, witch hazel, Japanese stewartia.

There are also many dwarf or slow growing evergreens that can be added to the garden. Narrow, columnar evergreens are also useful in the landscape. Don’t forget that tub trees, (marginally hardy or tropical trees) can be added to the garden in the summer and stored in a suitable place over the winter. These would include figs, pomegranates, citrus trees, bay laurel and olive trees.

Whether you plant a tree for shade, flowers, fruit or fall color doesn’t matter, trees are vitally important to the environment. If you don’t have room on your property or you live in an apartment you may be able to help the environment by planting trees in public spaces, school yards, at municipal buildings or in state and local parks. Just get permission first. Make a promise to plant a tree this spring.

Here are some additional articles you may want to read.

Great native shrubs

Edible Landscaping that provides fall color

Trees to avoid planting

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Read the author’s garden blog at

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