Plant That Tree Righteously!

The width of the planting hole should be at least two times the root-ball width, even wider if the soil is compacted. Photo courtesy of the author.

A wise person once said (or said something to the effect of), “When people plant trees under which they may never sit, then you know that civilization has arrived.” Tree planting. I know. It’s not sexy. There are so many shiny new toys in the removal and pruning facets of tree care that the ole’ shovel and pick-axe just don’t get any press.

Having removed many a tree, my hope is that I can plant enough to break even. Fortunately, in my formative years I spent some time planting thousands of Douglas fir saplings in the Pacific Northwest, so I’m probably good.

I am not sure how many tree companies offer planting services, but I can’t imagine a more appropriate and potentially lucrative opportunity. How many of your customers might want one or more replacements for what they have lost? Who knows better the importance of proper selection and planting techniques than an arborist?

As a practicing arborist and consultant, I have assessed thousands of trees. I see firsthand how they grow, or don’t, due to tree selection and planting techniques. There are plenty of landscapers out there, but it is an industry totally unregulated, with no certifications or training required. Hence, the wrong tree planted in the wrong place in a small hole that is too deep and capped off with the traditional mulch volcano is a common site.

I have found planting trees to be incredibly satisfying. In tree removal, the quality of your work is represented by what you didn’t do. You didn’t rip up the lawn. You didn’t smash a fence. You didn’t create a skylight in the roof. With tree planting, the results of your efforts are more recognized, and may continue to enhance the world long after you are gone. Unless you’re Jesus or Beethoven, it’s as close to immortal as most of us get.

Tree planting also can be quite lucrative. You can plant fairly sizable trees with minimal equipment. A mini-excavator and some type of loader are already part of many a tree company’s arsenal. While some worker training is essential, it is nothing compared to what goes into training a tree worker. You also will profit from the sale of the tree as well as the installation costs. Follow-up care can be offered. At least one visit should be scheduled to ensure the tree is being properly watered and to perform structural pruning as needed.

With all that in mind, I present to you a primer, or refresher course, on the art of tree planting.

The site

The client’s goals and site characteristics will define your choice of tree. Save everyone a world of trouble by planting a tree best suited to the site conditions.

• Take note of other trees in the area and their relative performance.

• Dig a hole and check the soil.

• Consider light availability and space limitations, including overhead structures.

• Define the desired functions and benefits desired, i.e., screening, shading, aesthetics, slope retention, windbreak, etc.

• Use the information to create a list of the best possible candidates.

The tree

When purchasing your tree, go to a reliable source with a history of providing quality material. Many nurseries will order a specific tree for you if they do not have one in stock. If containerized, remove the tree from the container to inspect the roots, if possible. Be wary of plants with roots already growing in a circular fashion or matted at the bottom. If balled and burlapped (B&B), make sure the lower trunk is not excessively buried in soil. You should be able to see or feel the root flare. Check for soil moisture.

Consider the tree form. If evergreen, look for a single stem and good foliage color. Multi-stemmed trees tend to develop structural problems later on. For deciduous trees, look for a strong central leader. Avoid trees with multiple branches in close proximity to each other, or lateral limbs more than half the size of the main trunk. Trees with co-dominant stems or tight, v-shaped branch unions will produce problems in the future. Don’t choose a tree just because it appears fuller. Good structure is key to future success.

Size matters. Well, at least when it comes to choosing how big a tree to purchase. A smaller tree will cost less and establish itself faster. A large, ball-and-burlap tree may have lost up to 90% of its root system during transplanting. It will take several years to re-establish a root system before any noticeable crown growth can occur. Supplemental watering will be needed for a longer time. If you have the time and patience, it is better to go smaller.

Figure 1: Tree Planting Diagram. Drawing from Best Management Practices: Tree Planting, 2005, International Society of Arboriculture. Photo courtesy of the author.

The hole

Plant it high, it will not die. Plant it low, it just won’t grow.

I have watched many a home garden show, but apparently not enough to see a proper hole. They are almost never big enough, always being amended with something when backfilled and then stomped into submission. Confinement in a small hole ripe with amended goodies will help insure reduced root extension into the surrounding soil.

Before preparing the hole, try to find the trunk flare on the lower stem. Young trees and grafted trees may not have a visible flare. Locate where the lateral roots emerge. The finished grade should have the trunk flare exposed and/or the lateral roots 2 to 3 inches below ground. This determines the depth to dig your hole.

The width of the planting hole should be at least two times the root-ball width, even wider if the soil is compacted. The hole should be saucer shaped in profile, with the sides gradually sloping toward the center. I recommend loosening the soil beyond the hole with a pitchfork or similar tool, if possible. The more area you loosen for root growth, the better.

The exterior of the root ball may be impenetrable for new root growth. Roughen up the sides with a garden claw to allow rootlet penetration into the backfill. Water the root ball thoroughly. Photo courtesy of the author.

Many B&B plants come with a wire basket. If the root ball seems stable, it may be possible to remove it entirely, but do not risk it if you are unsure. I will usually remove the bottom of the basket previous to lowering the tree into the hole. The sides of the basket can then be easily removed. Carefully place the tree into the hole, mindful of the direction you want it to face. Stabilize the ball by backfilling around the base. Remove any burlap or rope from the trunk and top of the root ball. Again, locate the trunk flare and be sure it is at the proper height above grade.

Remove as much of the wire basket and burlap as possible without collapsing the root ball, or at least the top third. Cut back any damaged, circling or exposed roots with a sharp tool. It is imperative that the roots grow away from the trunk. Roots growing in a circular fashion or back toward the stem can cause major problems, frequently when the tree is in its prime. If the exterior of the root ball is hard or glazed over, it may be impenetrable for new root growth. Roughen up the sides with a trowel, pitchfork or garden claw to allow rootlet penetration into the backfill. Water the root ball thoroughly.

Unless the soil is exceptionally poor, it is not necessary to add any amendments. If you do, I would suggest mixing it throughout the backfill, not just near the root ball. Backfill the hole with the existing soil halfway and add water. Work some of the air pockets out with your shovel, but do not compact. Continue backfilling until the proper grade is achieved and water again. Create a small, 2- to 3-inch-high ring around the edge of the hole for water retention. Finish the job with a 2- to 4-inch layer of mulch, keeping it 4 to 6 inches from the base of the tree. Do not cover the trunk with any mulch.

If containerized, remove the tree from its pot and inspect the roots. Try to tease out any matted or circling roots and cut them back. Set the tree in the hole at the proper height and proceed as above.

Find the flair! The dark area indicates the soil level of the B-and-B root ball. Machine dug root balls will often compress the soil ball and cause excess build up on top. Photo courtesy of the author.

Aftercare: water

It is difficult to prescribe how much to water, as tree characteristics and site conditions vary. In general, 3 to 5 gallons of water per inch of tree caliper may be applied weekly. You will need to monitor the soil at the planting site. It should be moist, not wet. It is best to slowly moisten the entire planting area, not just the root ball. A soaker hose works well. Specialized watering devices are also available. Placed around the stem, they are filled with water, which then slowly percolates into the soil. Small trees may only need supplemental watering for a few years. Larger trees may need three to five years of watering, especially during periods of drought.

Aftercare: support

Guying or staking is usually not necessary for trees under 2 inches in diameter. Tree stems need to move in the wind to develop strong trunk wood and proper taper. If support is added, it should not be left on for more than two growing seasons.

It is best to slowly moisten the entire planting area, not just the root ball. Guying or staking is usually not necessary for trees under 2 inches in diameter. Photo courtesy of the author.

Pruning

Besides improper planting, lack of proper pruning is a major and common debauchery. A codominant or oversized lateral that could have been corrected with hand pruners fails when the tree is in its prime. There is a debate as to whether it is proper to remove live growth when the tree is under stress from planting. A lot will depend on the species and time of year. It is best to come back in a year or two to give the plant a chance to get established, but if you are unsure if that will happen, prune at the time of planting.

In closing, I’m thinking it may be more gratifying to point out to your grandchildren where a tree grows because of your efforts, rather than where one was. Consider tree planting as a part of your business. A legacy can’t be built on what isn’t there.

Howard Gaffin, BCMA, RCA and Massachusetts Certified Arborist, is owner of Gaffin Tree & Landscaping, a TCIA member company located in Rowley, Massachusetts.

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