In the Garden:
Middle South
August, 2009
Regional Report

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Trees, such as this eye-catching magnolia, thrive when planted with care.

Trees Take Root With Proper Planting

Anyone with a shovel can plant a tree. Question is, can they do it right?

Trees are often expensive and planting them can be hard work, so it makes sense to know what works best and to adopt methods that help them take root. In the last few years, state forestry commissions and university extension services have created new guidelines for planting trees and other woody ornamentals. Surprisingly, much of the current information is contrary to previous advice.

If you're adding trees to the landscape this fall, consider the following new guidelines and the reasons why experts say they work.

Ensure Correct Placement of the Root Flare
When you're ready to plant, find the tree's root flare (where major roots emerge from the trunk at the base of the tree) and remove any soil above this area, as the tree may be planted too deep in its pot. Once any excess soil has been removed, measure the height and width of the rootball. Then, dig a planting hole three to five times wider than the rootball and several inches shy of its height, shaping it like a flat-bottomed bowl with sloping sides that widen at the top. Take care not to dig too deep or to cultivate the soil at the bottom of the hole.

Experts now say placement of the root flair in relationship to the surrounding soil is the most important factor in a tree's ability to flourish in a new environment. Trees that are planted too deep or that settle into the hole may not thrive because their roots are deprived of oxygen. This is especially true in heavy clay soils.

The most common mistake is digging a hole that is too deep and too narrow. Dig shallow, ensuring proper placement of the root flair just above the native soil level (enough to allow for some settling), and dig wide, loosening the soil so that roots can nourish and anchor the tree by growing into the surrounding area.

Loosen Roots of Container-Grown Trees
Before placing the tree in the planting hole, examine its roots. If they are tightly compressed or growing in a circle, take a knife and score the rootball in three or four places, making shallow cuts from top to bottom. Then, gently tease the sides of the rootball apart.

Roots that are compressed or growing in a circle may not grow beyond the dimensions of their original container. Don't be afraid to sever some roots, as the tree will produce new roots from these cuts.

Do Not Amend the Soil
Once the tree is placed in the planting hole, backfill with native soil without amending it with compost, fertilizer, or any other additives. Tamp it lightly as you fill the hole, but do not compact the soil too tightly.

New research shows that heavily amended soil and compressed soil may prevent roots from expanding beyond the planting hole. Once established, new trees can be fertilized to help them fill their space in the landscape, but discontinue the practice as the tree reaches maturity.

Monitor Moisture
A newly planted tree needs careful monitoring. Frequency of irrigation will depend on soil type, temperature, and available rainfall. To make irrigation more effective, hold water over the root area by forming a small berm around the edge of the planting hole. Then, mulch the planting area with 2 to 3 inches of organic material such as pine straw or shredded bark to help retain moisture and suppress weeds.

Water, not fertilizer, is the most important element in helping a new tree become established. Be especially careful to monitor moisture in the first few months, as well as in periods of drought and extreme temperatures (both hot and cold).


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