Published on 09/15/97

Proper Planting Gives Trees Healthy Start

As trees develop and grow, the memories of the people who opened the soil and covered the roots grow, too. Tree planting is a life-affirming process.

For all the joy and great expectations that go into planting a tree, though, there can also be some concerns. Many new trees never survive to their first planting-date anniversary. Others barely hang on for years, struggling to survive.

Many tree problems start at planting time. A little care up front will allow a tree to survive, grow and thrive.

One of the best insurance policies for successful tree planting is planning. How much space is available, both above and below the soil surface, for a tree to grow into? What kind of soil limitations are there?

Planning for biological success includes site and species selection, tree placement, soil preparation, hole excavation, proper backfilling and conscientious ongoing care.

Assuming you have bought a great tree and have a site where few things will limit its growth, how do you plant it?

First, if the site has no other trees already and no tree roots in the soil, rototill and subsoil to fracture and break up the soil and any impervious layers. Till an area at least five times as big as the critical root area for the tree. This will help with tree root establishment and general soil health.

If tree roots are present, don't till the site. Determine if soil changes are required. If you need them, use core aeration, vertical mulching or radial or X trenches backfilled with coarse, noncompactable materials and organic matter. Better drainage and more oxygen are the primary goals. Good root-growth pores are a secondary concern.

Next, dig a shallow, saucer-shaped hole in the middle of the prepared area. Dig the saucer bottom only as deep as 90 percent of the root ball (10 percent is aboveground).

Remove wire, burlap, cloth, baskets, straps and strings. If the root ball is too large to lift, or the soil will all fall away, put the tree in the saucer and lay the binding materials in the bottom.

Use your hands to examine root quality by pulling or raking soil away from the outer one-quarter of the root ball radius. Consider cleanly cutting roots in girdling or circling positions.

Backfill with whatever soil came out of the hole. Tap, don't tamp, the soil into the hole. Once the hole is filled, water it to settle the soil and establish water connections between the soil and the tree. Always start watering over the top of the root ball.

A thin layer of organic mulch can be lightly placed over the critical root area and beyond.

You don't need to stake a properly specified tree, although trees on steep hillsides and the corners of big buildings may need temporary staking. If that's the case, use two stakes and loose, flexible bands to lightly hold the tree. Don't use wire, regardless of what it's covered with.

Don't prune the tree, and don't apply a fast-release or medium- or high-nitrogen fertilizer for at least one full growing season.

Prevent any mechanical damage to the tree, especially the stem base and the main branches.

Planting a tree is a great family or community activity. People getting together to start new trees is an investment in future generations. Be sure your tree outlives you -- plant it correctly.

Kim Coder is a forester with the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.