KC Gardens

10 rules for planting trees

Tip of the Week

The spring planting season will soon be upon us. Garden centers have fresh nursery stock, just waiting for a new home. If you will be planting a new tree this spring here are some tips to consider. A tree that is properly planted will establish more quickly, and provide many years of joy.

  1. Select the right tree for the site. Choose trees that are adapted to your location. Consider whether the tree produces nuisance fruit or if there are disease-resistant varieties available. For example, there are a number of crabapple varieties that are resistant to apple scab and rust diseases. Also factor in the mature size of a tree to be sure you have enough room. See our fact sheet on recommended trees for the Kansas City area. http://www.johnson.ksu.edu/doc44673.ashx

  2. Keep the tree well watered and in a shady location until planting. When moving the tree, lift it by the root ball or pot, not by the trunk, as this damages the root system.

  3. Before planting, remove all wires, labels, cords or anything else tied to the plant. If left on, they may eventually girdle the branch to which they are attached.

  4. Dig a proper hole. Make the hole deep enough so that the tree sits slightly above nursery level.

Plant the tree on solid ground, not fill dirt. In other words, don’t dig the hole too deep and then add soil back to the hole before placing the tree. The root flare (point where trunk and roots meet) should be visible. If it isn’t, remove enough soil so that it is. The width of the planting hole is very important. It should be at least three times the width of the root ball. Because of our clay soils, the shovel can cause the sides of the planting hole to be slick, which is difficult for roots to penetrate. Loosen the soil around the walls and outside the hole so that it is five times the diameter of the root ball. This will allow the tree to spread its roots faster.

  1. Remove all containers from the root ball. Cut away plastic and peat pots; roll burlap and wire baskets back into the hole, cutting as much of the excess away as possible. If you can remove the wire basket without disturbing the root ball, do it. If roots have been circling around in the container, cut them and spread them out so they do not continue growing this way inside the hole and become girdling roots later in the life of the tree. Remove any excess soil from the top of the ball so that the root flare is visible.

  2. Backfill the hole with the same soil that was removed. Amendments such as peat moss likely do more harm than good. Make sure the soil that goes back is loosened — no clods or clumps. Add water as you fill to ensure good root-to-soil contact and prevent air pockets. There is no need to fertilize at planting. Adding organic matter to the larger area outside the planting hole can be beneficial, but it must be mixed in thoroughly with the existing soil. However, adding amendments to just the planting hole in heavy soil creates a “pot” effect that can fill with water and drown your new tree.

  3. Don’t cut back the branches of a tree after planting except those that are rubbing or damaged. The leaf buds release a hormone that encourages root growth. If the tree is cut back, the reduced number of leaf buds results in less hormone released and therefore fewer roots being formed.

  4. Water the tree thoroughly and then once a week for the first season if there is insufficient rainfall.

  5. Mulch around the tree. Mulch should be 2 to 4 inches deep and cover an area two to three times the diameter of the root ball. Mulching reduces competition from other plants, conserves moisture and keeps soil temperature closer to what the plants’ roots prefer.

  6. Stake only when necessary. Trees will establish more quickly and grow faster if they are not staked. However, larger trees or those in windy locations may need to be staked the first year. Movement is necessary for the trunk to become strong. Staking should be designed to limit movement of the root ball rather than immobilize the trunk. Movement in the upper portion of the tree encourages root development and a sturdy tree.

Following these guidelines will help ensure success for the future. Happy planting!

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