One of the unofficial job titles I have is “Dead Plant Detective.” It’s always interesting to get calls about trees that are struggling to survive or have already kicked the proverbial bucket and then I’m asked what the problem is.
To be honest, if your tree is already dead and you ask me what’s wrong with it, I’ll tell you it’s dead. However, if you ask me what killed it, I would be willing to bet with at least 75 percent certainty that the issue is related to how, or where, or what tree was planted.
Winter is generally the best time of the year to plant trees and if you follow relatively simple instructions prior to planting, you can save yourself some money, heartache, and a phone call a few years down the road.
The first two steps to a successful tree planting are selecting the right tree and sighting a proper location for that tree. If you’re trying to find a certain variety of a tree such as apple or pear to that does best in our region, you can call our office ahead of time.
Otherwise, any plant acclimated to USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 8A should be fine as long they are planted in the right spot. Plants meant for shade should not be planted in full sun.
Also, plants that like dry sites should not be planted where they’ll have “wet feet” due to prolonged wetness. You should also inspect the roots of any plants prior to purchase to make sure they are not too severely root bound and that they have white-tipped roots growing along the outside indicating a actively growing root system. Plants that go in the ground without a healthy root system are already dead; they just don’t know it yet.
Once you know you have the right plant for the right place, you have to dig a hole to put it in. Having young children, there is an analogy that comes to mind to help explain the best way to think of a proper hole for a tree.
Buying shoes for our young son is almost pointless because we know that his feet will very soon be too large for the shoes we just bought. The best you can do is buy shoes that are just a bit bigger than what he needs so he can grow into them. Imagine the hole you’re digging is the shoe and the root system is the foot. It is important to dig a hole that is at least twice as wide as the root ball so that the roots have something to grow into and allow it to scavenge for water and nutrients quickly. Having a hole only as wide as the root ball will often restrict new root growth and will also stress the tree once we have a dry summer (and we will have a dry summer at some point). When this happens, no amount of watering will keep that tree alive. When it comes to planting trees, a wide hole is more important than a deep hole. You should only dig a hole as deep as the root ball. When planting a bed or row of trees, it is often better to put the effort into digging a bed 12 to 15 inches deep for the trees rather than individual holes to ensure adequate root development and uniformity in tree development. Immediately after planting, it’s best to water thoroughly to remove any air pockets and keep the roots from drying out.
Fertilization at planting is a common question. If you wish to put fertilizer in the planting hole, use slow release nitrogen instead of regular granular fertilizer. Allow the trees to become better established before applying any more granular fertilizer. Applying three inches of mulch around the tree will help conserve moisture and prevent competition from grass and weeds. Trees should be watered regularly until they become well established but make sure that soil is not too wet. Keeping the soil uniformly moist is critical for young trees to survive.
Planting trees can be labor intensive, but doing it right the first time will hopefully prevent the trouble of doing it a second time. Always feel free to call the office for more information on specific varieties or more detailed planting instructions.
Adam Speir is Madison County’s cooperative extension agent for agriculture and natural resources.