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How to plant a tree

Picture a flattened bowler hat. The young tree is planted in a mound slightly above the level of the ground, surrounded by a saucer-like moat to collect rainwater. That’s the goal.

Let’s back up to the start. A bareroot tree – it’s too late to plant one now, you would have had to have done that a month or so ago – goes in the ground as soon as it arrives. If you’re not ready right away, keep the tree cool, in the shade, and the roots moist, either in a bucket filled with water or well packed in moisture-retaining material like leaf mould or shredded paper. A bareroot tree is dormant – it has no or very minimal leaf growth.

A potted tree, which will by now have foliage, can go in at any time. If your new planting gets overtaken by drought, extra care is needed: a temporary shelter to shield it from the blazing sun, a daily soak, and a daily misting. Now and into June, there should be no problem planting a container tree and while regular care is a good idea, if the planting has been done right (see below, especially the mulching part) and there is reasonable precipitation, the tree should be in good shape to survive if you have to plant and leave.

A note on tree size: the length of time it takes for a tree to grow up after transplanting is a function of the ratio of root to top growth. A young tree with a proportionately larger underground support system will work on establishing its roots in the first year and then be able to start putting on height in year two. It might overtake a taller tree of the same species that has left most of its roots in the field where it was grown, and may need three years to repair the damage before it can turn its mind to top growth. I like the philosophy espoused by this tree grower in Alberta. A good age for a tree to be planted is when it’s big enough to miss with the mower, small enough to plant with a shovel.

--Dig. So you’ve chosen your tree. Now you have to dig a hole. Shake out the weeds and save the soil in a wheelbarrow or on a plastic sheet. The hole should be only slightly shallower than the size of the rootball and about three times wider. Using a garden fork, spike the sides and bottom of the hole to provide easier penetration for the roots.

--Plant. Place the tree in the centre of the hole and gently spread out the roots. If the roots are circling within the pot, tease them out. If the roots are a solid mass, make four shallow cuts from top to bottom along the side, and a couple more across the bottom, to encourage new growth. Cover the roots with the soil you have set aside. You may need some extra soil; purchase a bag of natural topsoil, no need for triple mix, and mix it with the material you have excavated. The material in the hole should be similar to what is in the surrounding area, which is where you want the tree to stretch out its roots.

Trees benefit from partnerships with other trees of the same species - see Peter Wohlleben - so plant more than one if you have the space. And they partner with many other organisms - I wrote about this in a series of blogs focusing on soil in 2015. One group of organisms that is available commercially is mycorrhizal fungi. If your soil is not in the best of health, it’s a good idea to sprinkle the appropriate mycorrhizal inoculant into the planting hole. This is the blog that deals with various soil-boosting products

The soil should come up no higher than the trunk flare - the point at which the roots start to spread out. If it goes higher, it could induce rot. The line at which the soil came up to in the container is a good guide. Gently tamp the soil down by hand, ensuring good contact between soil and roots. But remember the flattened bowler hat. Hold the tree a little above ground level, and mound the soil. Then, create a shallow channel around the tree a couple of feet out, to retain moisture. Use your foot to apply pressure to the base of the tree. You want to eliminate possible air pockets in the hole, and ensure the tree is straight. If your tree is more than four feet high, you should drive in a couple of stakes, one on either side a couple of feet away from the trunk and use some soft material (pantyhose works well) to tie the tree into position. This will keep the tree steady, ensuring that the roots are not pulled out of contact with the soil in windy weather. You can remove the stakes after a year or two.

--Mulch. There is no greater gift you can give your tree than a good covering of mulch, to boost soil organism populations, help retain moisture in times of drought, and protect against cold in winter. Be sure not to pile the mulch up against the trunk, though – that also would lead to rot. My preferred mulch is leaf mould, which consists of leaves that have been kept for 18 months to two years. If you use wood chips, they should be at least a year old. Fresh wood chips will take nitrogen from the soil as they decompose, robbing your tree of nutrients.

--Water. The best way is to set the hose on the ground at a slow trickle for an hour or so, allowing the moisture to infiltrate deeply. Do this once a week for a young tree. Do it in times of drought for all trees. The worst way to water is to wave the hose around for five minutes. If you scratch the surface of the soil, you will find that this method has not led to any moisture penetration. For deciduous trees and Eastern Hemlocks – add a plastic spiral to protect against mice and rabbits. If the tree is being planted near a watercourse known to be inhabited by beavers, construct a cage using a roll of chicken wire held in place two or three wooden stakes.

--Weed. Your tree will grow much faster if you keep the area around it free of weeds. Many species when young have a hard time competing with grasses. Mulch mats made of coir or recycled paper are a good idea if planting in a naturalized situation where you won’t necessarily be doing the perfect mounding and mulching and regular care routine.

Coming Events:

--Pull and Plant this weekend at Tiny Marsh. I'm part of a group that has been working to control Garlic Mustard on the marsh property for several years. This year, we are focusing on a field that is west of the parking lot, past the maintenance building. And this year only, we have a very special opportunity: 1,500 native plants to be planted in place of the GM we’re pulling out. These are chosen for being tough - as they have a battle to wage with the invasive and destructive alien - and pollinator friendly, because the native bees and butterflies at Tiny Marsh need more floral resources! We will be pulling and planting from 9am-5pm, Saturday and Sunday, May 27-28. If you can join us for a couple of hours, that would be wonderful. Email Anne McArthur at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to let her know you’re coming. Or just show up.

--Native Plant Sale at Wild Birds Unlimited Barrie. This is a chance for our clients from Barrie and points south to connect without having to make the trip to Elmvale. The sale runs from 11am to 2pm, Saturday June 4 2017 at WBU Barrie, 515 Bryne Drive, Unit B, Barrie, ON L4N 9P7. More information, plant details.
Julie Barker
- 25 May 2017 at 09:20pm

Clear directions! Thanks so much for this, Kate!
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