Dig Into Tree Planting

by TGC Staff | June 8, 2002 12:00 am

Trees in your backyard can be home to many different types of wildlife. Trees can also reduce your heating and cooling costs, help clean the air, add beauty and color, provide shelter from the wind and the sun, and add value to your home.

Choosing a Tree

Choosing a tree should be a well thought-out decision. Tree planting can be a significant investment in money and time. Proper selection can provide you with years of enjoyment as well as significantly increase the value of your property. An inappropriate tree for your property can be a constant maintenance problem or even a hazard. Before you buy, take advantage of the abundant references on gardening at local libraries, universities, arboretums, parks where trees are identified, native plant and gardening clubs, and nurseries.

Some questions to consider in selecting a tree include:

Placement of trees

Proper placement of trees is critical for your enjoyment and their long-term survival. Check with local authorities about regulations pertaining to placement of trees. Some communities have ordinances restricting placement of trees within a specified distance of a street, sidewalk, streetlight, or other utilities.

Before planting your tree, consider the tree's ultimate size. When the tree nears maturity, will it be too near your house or other structures? Be considerate of your neighbors. An evergreen tree planted on your north side may block the winter sun from your next door neighbor. Will it provide too much shade for your vegetable and flower gardens? Most vegetables and many flowers require considerable amounts of sun. If you intend to grow these plants, consider how the placement of trees will affect these gardens. Will it obstruct driveways or sidewalks? Will it cause problems for buried or overhead utilities?

Planting a tree

A properly planted and maintained tree will grow faster and live longer than one that is incorrectly planted. Trees can be planted almost any time of the year as long as the ground is not frozen. Late summer or early fall is the optimum time to plant trees in many areas. This gives the tree a chance to establish new roots before winter arrives and the ground freezes. When spring arrives, the tree is ready to grow. The second choice for planting is late winter or early spring. Planting in hot summer weather should be avoided. Planting in frozen soil during the winter is difficult and tough on tree roots. When the tree is dormant and the ground is frozen, there is no opportunity for the growth of new roots.

Trees are purchased as container grown, balled and burlapped (B&B), and bare root. Generally, container grown are the easiest to plant and successfully establish in any season, including summer. With container grown stock, the plant has been growing in a container for a period of time. When planting container grown plants, little damage is done to the roots as the plant is transferred to the soil. Container grown trees range in size from very small plants in gallon pots up to large trees in huge pots. B&B plants frequently have been dug from a nursery, wrapped in burlap, and kept in the nursery for an additional period of time, giving the roots opportunity to regenerate. B&B plants can be quite large. Bare root trees are usually extremely small plants. Because there is no soil on the roots, they must be planted when they are dormant to avoid drying out. The roots must be kept moist until planted. Frequently, bare root trees are offered by seed and nursery mail order catalogs or in the wholesale trade. Many state operated nurseries and local conservation districts also sell bare root stock in bulk quantities for only a few cents per plant. Bare root plants usually are offered in the early spring and should be planted as soon as possible upon arrival.

Carefully follow the planting instructions that come with your tree. If specific instructions are not available, follow these tips:


For the first year or two, especially after a week or so of especially hot or dry weather, watch your trees closely for signs of moisture stress. If you see leaf wilting or hard, caked soil, water the trees well and slowly enough to allow the water to soak in. This will encourage deep root growth. Keep the area under the trees mulched.

Some species of evergreen trees may need protection against winter sun and wind. A thorough watering in the fall before the ground freezes is recommended. Spray solutions are available to help prevent drying of foliage during the winter.

Fertilization is usually not needed for newly planted trees. Depending on soil and growing conditions, fertilizer may be beneficial at a later time.

Young trees need protection against rodents, frost cracks, sunscald, and lawn mowers and weed whackers. Mice and rabbits frequently girdle small trees by chewing away the bark at snow level. Since the tissues that transport nutrients in the tree are located just under the bark, a girdled tree often dies in the spring when growth resumes. Weed whackers are also a common cause of girdling. Plastic guards are an inexpensive and easy control method. Frost cracking is caused by the sunny side of the tree expanding at a different rate than the colder shaded side. This can cause large splits in the trunk. Sunscald can occur when a young tree is suddenly moved from a shady spot into direct sun. Light colored tree wraps can be used to protect the trunk from sunscald.


Usually, pruning is not needed on newly planted trees. As the tree grows, lower branches may be pruned to provide clearance above the ground, or to remove dead or damaged limbs or suckers that sprout from the trunk. Sometimes larger trees need pruning to allow more light to enter the canopy. Small branches can be removed easily with pruners. Large branches should be removed with a pruning saw. All cuts should be vertical. This will allow the tree to heal quickly without the use of sealants. Major pruning should be done in late winter or early spring. At this time the tree is more likely to "bleed" as sap is rising through the plant. This is actually healthy and will help prevent invasion by many disease organisms. Heavy pruning in the late summer or fall may reduce the tree's winter hardiness. Removal of large branches can be hazardous. If in doubt about your ability to prune properly, contact a professional with the proper equipment.

Under no circumstance should trees be topped. Not only does this practice ruin the natural shape of the tree, but it increases susceptibility to diseases and results in very narrow crotch angles, the angle between the trunk and the side branch. Narrow crotch angles are weaker than wide ones and more susceptible to damage from wind and ice. If a large tree requires major reduction in height or size, contact a professionally trained arborist. There are other methods to selectively remove large branches without sacrificing the health or beauty of the tree.

On the farm

Windbreaks and tree plantings slow the wind and provide shelter and food for wildlife. Trees can shelter livestock and crops; they are used as barriers to slow winds that blow across large cropped fields and through farmsteads. Windbreaks can be beneficial in reducing blowing and drifting snow along roadways. Farmstead and field windbreaks and tree plantings are key components of a conservation system. They also help prevent dust particles from adding to smog over urban areas.

Source: Photo by Keith Weller, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Article appears courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.


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