As the first warm days of spring arrive, most homeowners turn their attention to their yards. We see all sorts of potential in our lawns, flower beds, and dormant vegetable gardens and we have at least 6 months of growing season in front of us.
It is only natural, then, that we also think about planting. The Pendleton Tree Commission would like to share a few ideas about spring tree planting.
First, recognize that spring is not the optimum time of year for planting trees in our climate. Trees planted in the fall have several months for their root systems to adjust to their new home before the leafing canopy begins making demands for water and nutrition. For this reason, the autumn is a better time for tree-planting.
However, nursery owners will tell you that spring is the peak season of demand for residential trees. Perhaps it is because the fall is never long enough to do all we want before winter sets in, but for whatever reason, spring tree planting is here to stay.
So, if you must plant trees immediately before the warm, dry summer, there are a few steps to take that can improve the chances of having a beautiful, healthy tree in your yard, one that can bring you and your neighbors many years of pleasure.
First, what kind of tree do you want? Tree species that are native to our area, or at least native to northeastern Oregon, will require less water, fertilizer, and care over their lifetime while providing habitat for native wildlife. Ornamentals can provide striking and unusual beauty. Fruit trees can bear a summer and fall bounty, but bring their own challenges in terms of spraying requirements and cleanup of fallen fruit. Large, leafy trees provide quality shade in summer while allowing sunlight through in winter, but add to the fall chore of raking for you (and your downwind neighbors!).
The Pendleton Tree Commission provides some suggestions in terms of tree species and proper location on the Pendleton Parks and Recreation website — look in the FAQ section for a link to the “Right Tree, Right Place” document.
Next, consider the location. Is your planting site below overhead powerlines that will eventually cause the tree to be topped? A topped tree is generally unsightly, can develop new weak branch growth that is dangerous, and will lead a shortened life. Selecting a suitable type of tree and then pruning it properly is a much better approach.
Are you absolutely certain about the location of underground utilities near your digging site? You don’t want to cut through underground wires or pipes when planting your tree and it is also important to consider the eventual rooting zone of your tree so as to avoid future conflicts with buried utilities and sidewalks.
Trees exposed to the hot south and west sun, especially with concrete nearby to reflect heat, can suffer sunscald — so be prepared to protect the young, tender bark under these conditions.
The hole you dig for your new tree should be a shallow, dish-shaped hole, just as deep as the root ball and 2-3 times as wide with sloping sides. Don’t plant your tree too deep — look for the trunk “flare” where the stem meets the roots, and plant this just at or slightly above ground level.
Place the tree gently in the hole (carrying it by the root ball, not by the trunk). Step back and view from several angles to ensure the tree is straight before beginning to backfill. Fill soil in and around the tree progressively, gently packing the soil to remove air pockets.
Once the soil is at the top of the root ball, smooth and level the site and form a shallow basin at least as wide as the root ball. Water the tree by filling the basin, but do not fertilize at planting time. Remember that trees are generally water-stressed at planting because they have been recently pulled from their nursery bed, and many of its important small, fine roots have been torn or cut in the process. Keeping the tree watered is important.
Mulch, if selected correctly, is a valuable addition. Organic mulches (bark, compost, etc.) placed 2-4 inches deep insulate the soil from temperature extremes, improve soil quality and nutrition, and make water more available to the young tree. A large mulched area also reduces the potential for damage to the tree from string trimmers or lawnmowers.
Inorganic mulches like rocks, sand, and plastic are generally not a good idea — they tend to increase soil temperature and do little to improve soil quality or water holding capacity.
Trees should be staked only if absolutely necessary and only for the first year. Be sure that the apparatus does not damage the tree bark by constricting or cutting into the tree, and remember that the tree’s circulatory system and tender growing material lie immediately under the bark.
Lastly, be patient with your newly planted tree. Trees moved to a new environment tend to focus their energies on growing roots for the first few years so that they can provide new crown with nutrients and water. Only then will the tree energy shift to the branches and stem, well on the way to gracing your year with decades or more of shade, beauty, and habitat.