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PLANTING TREES -- The best time to plant a tree is now, because if you don’t get them
in the ground they will never grow. (Image courtesy Gerald Klingaman) (Image courtesy
I love all plants but if I had to choose a favorite group it would probably be trees.
My fascination with trees is probably some deep-seated primal thing casting a shadow
from eons ago when trees were important in our daily survival as a species. Maybe,
or maybe I just find their enormity and permanence fascinating. It doesn’t matter
much but over a lifetime I’ve planted quite a few and can make some general observations.
The most important observation is that trees take time to develop, so the best time
to plant them is now. Fall is the ideal season for tree planting but with container-grown
plants we are no longer bound to the seasonality rules of past generations of tree
planters. Fall planting allows trees to better establish roots before the stresses
of summer, but spring and summer planting work too, but require closer attention to
Choosing the right location is important but getting it in the ground sooner rather
than later so that it will have time to grow is critical. Tree planters must visualize
what size and shape trees will assume as they mature and plant accordingly. Height
and spread are critical information to consider but few of us have the luxury of spacing
trees for the size they will attain at maturity. Instead it is best to consider some
intermediate timeframe, say 20 or so years in the future.
I’ve been planting the arboretum at the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks and I spaced
most of the large shade trees 30 to 35 feet apart. At this distance the tree canopies
will close in about 20 to 25 years, creating a boulevard of shade for future visitors.
If my goal were to plant free-standing specimens that would never touch their neighbors,
the spacing would have to be much wider – say on the order of 80 feet apart. When
planting around a home I like to keep trees at least 15 feet from structures but sometimes
the mature form of the tree may require a different spacing.
What is the ideal size tree to plant? I’ve planted trees in all sizes – from bare
root 1-year-old seedlings to 10-year-old behemoths with 800-pound root balls – and
have found that mid-sized trees generally work best for me. Any size will work but
the amount of attention to detail varies significantly between the sizes. Tiny seedlings
take close attention lest they get lost in the shuffle. Really big trees present an
immediate presence in the landscape but avoiding transplant shock and careful attention
to satisfy watering needs is critical for establishment. Medium sized trees establish
nicely and grow quickly but in areas with roving deer herds, trunk protection must
be provided to keep bucks from rubbing off the bark.
Trees are no different than other plants in that they grow best in good soil. Well-drained
soil that hasn’t been compacted by construction equipment works for most species.
Too often, especially around construction sites, the soil structure has been completely
destroyed and trees are expected to grow in compacted subsoil with a 4-inch frosting
of topsoil that is barely able to support grass and weeds. In such cases breaking
up compacted subsoil and adding a thicker layer of topsoil improves the odds of long-term
Colleagues of mine when I worked at the UofA built their research careers around studying
soil amendments as they relate to tree establishment. Basically they concluded that
while soil amendments may help during the first year or two after a tree is planted
such amendments offer no benefit for the long-term survival of the tree.
If a tree, with its wide-ranging root system, is going to flourish it must do so in
the natural soil of the site, not in some small pocket of soil around the root ball.
Hence, maintaining the integrity of the natural soil without compacting or otherwise
defiling it is critical if the tree will show its true potential.