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9 steps to get new trees off to good start

Tree Talk: It’s been a rough year for trees, but fall is the prime time to plant and get them ready for 2022.

Fredric Miller

October 14, 2021

4 Min Read
sun shining through green forest
Xurzon/Getty Images

Are you looking to plant trees yet this fall? 2021 was a tough year for woody plants, thanks to a dry spring, wet periods, then a dry summer and fall. If your trees are suffering, this may be the time to make changes in your farm landscape.

Here’s a look at nine ways to get it done right:

1. Choose the right plant. The first thing to do is choose the right plant for the right site. Soil type is extremely important and will determine the longevity and vitality of the tree. Do not plant an upland species like oak, hickory, walnut, sugar maple or conifer on heavy clay and poorly drained soils. Avoid planting water-loving species like silver maple, willow or cottonwood on droughty or sandy soils.

2. Think variety. Plan and plant a variety of different species. It is fine to replace the lost tree with the same species because of its fall color, but there are other species that can also give you good red fall color. So, you can replace a red maple with a sweetgum and get the same color.

3. Consider mature size. One of the common problems I see is planting trees too close to structures or in a confined space. This creates problems and usually requires excessive pruning and shaping to keep the tree in bounds, and may even ruin the desired shape of the tree. If you’re not familiar with the growth habits of a particular species, visit an arboretum, consult with an arborist, or enjoy a walk in the woods and observe the tree in its natural habitat.

4. Be realistic about tree maintenance. Pruning, watering, and pest and disease problems are real, so consider planting a less-susceptible species. This will help ensure the tree will thrive and be healthy, save you time and money, and provide you the desired ornamental qualities.

5. Match selection with function. Need shade, privacy, wind or noise abatement? Make sure your tree selection will deliver.

6. Pick the right timing. Is fall a better time to plant than spring? Either time is fine; flexibility is greater in fall. You can plant a tree anytime the ground is not frozen and when you can provide water. Fall gives the tree more time to settle into its new environment and regenerate new roots. The tree will usually experience less transplant shock in fall because of cooler temperatures, lack of leaves to support, no pests and diseases to contend with, and more consistent rainfall. When spring rolls around, the tree will already be in place and be prepared to start growing.

7. Think about nursery selection. When choosing to plant a ball-and-burlap tree, make sure the root ball is in good condition, moist and the proper size. Standard nursery practices require 10 to 12 inches of root ball diameter per each 1 inch of tree caliper, so a 2-inch caliper tree should have a 20- to 24-inch root ball diameter, which could weigh several hundred pounds. The tree trunk should be firm in the root ball and not easily moved around. Look for any damage to the trunk, which indicates rough handling. And remember, bigger is not better. A smaller tree will have a better survival rate than a large tree and will generally catch up in growth.

8. Plant well. For those ball-and-burlap trees, remove all twine from around the trunk of the tree, or it will girdle the trunk as the tree grows and make it susceptible to snapping at the girdling point. Some B&B trees may come in a wire basket. Try to remove at least the upper half of the wire basket, if not all of it.

9. Prepare for ongoing care. Focus on helping the tree regenerate its root system in the first several years. A good rule of thumb is that a 2-inch-diameter tree trunk needs two years to regenerate its root system. Refrain from fertilizing right away. Once roots regenerate, then fertilize. As always, keep the tree well-watered during dry spells, mulch around the tree, and protect it from pests and diseases until the tree is established.

For more details on proper tree planting and tree selection, consult your local county Extension office, a certified arborist, local nursery or garden center, or The Morton Arboretum tree selector website.

Miller is a horticulture professor at Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Ill., and a senior research scientist in entomology at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill. Email your tree questions to him at [email protected]. The opinions of this writer are not necessarily those of Farm Progress/Informa.

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