Lately there’s been a lot of concern about trees. There was a lot of damage to our tree canopy during Hurricane Irma. Meanwhile, some folks are still waiting for the debris to be removed from their yards. For many Northeast Florida residents, planting more trees may be the last thing on their mind. However, this time of year is a great time to plant trees. This is why Florida celebrates Arbor Day in January.
The first official Arbor Day in the United States took place on April 10, 1872, in Nebraska. The first Arbor Day was championed by a newspaper editor in Nebraska City named J. Sterling Morton. He moved to Nebraska from Detroit in 1854 and believed that the treeless plains of Nebraska would benefit from the planting of trees. Morton used his skill as a journalist to promote sound agricultural information as well as the benefits of trees.
The first Arbor Day included prizes for counties and individuals that planted the most trees on that day. It was such a success that an estimated 1 million trees were planted. Arbor Day became a legal holiday in Nebraska and is celebrated annually on April 22, which is Morton’s birthday.
Today, Arbor Day is celebrated in all 50 states. The dates coincide with the optimal tree planting season. In Florida, we plant in January since we do not have to wait for the soil to defrost before we can plant a tree. Florida’s Arbor Day is the third Friday in January. While that day just passed, it is never too late to plant a tree. The following procedure will help you choose and properly plant a new tree.
For many of us, planting trees involves going to the nursery and picking out what may be on sale at the time, carrying it home and planting it. I recommend adding a few steps to guarantee success. They are Plan, Purchase, Plant and Establish.
Planning involves looking over your landscape and answering a few questions. How much space do you have? After the recent hurricanes, many homeowners have no desire to plant large trees like oaks and maples back in their landscapes for fear that they may cause damage in the future. In many cases that is the right thing to do because there isn’t enough space to replant a large tree. Rather than leave that space tree-less, why not plant a smaller tree?
Is your planting site in full sun, full shade or somewhere in between? How well-drained is your property? Planning also involves figuring out the attributes you would like to have in your tree. Do you want an evergreen, or a tree that loses its leaves in the winter? What leaf shapes are attractive to you?
Your site characteristics should be matched with a tree that meets your criteria. The more planning you put into your purchase, the more satisfied you will be with the outcome.
Next comes purchasing a quality tree. A quality tree will have a good root system that has filled the container without creating circling roots. Check for circling roots before you purchase the tree because roots that are circling around the outside of the rootball will have to be cut.
Do not purchase a tree that has large roots escaping out from the drainage holes in the container; that’s a sign that it has been in the container too long. The trunk should be a single stem with well-spaced lateral branches. Exceptions to this rule are multi-stemmed trees like crape myrtle.
There should be no lateral branches larger than 2/3 of the diameter of the main stem. This prevents a condition called co-dominant stems that dramatically reduces the ability of trees to hold up in windstorms.
The tree trunks should be free of wounds, cankers and insect infestations. The foliage of the tree should be full, with the leaves a healthy green color.
Before planting the tree, remember to call “811” before you dig. Calling 811 before every digging job gets your underground utility lines marked for free and helps prevent undesired consequences. It’s a good idea to do this even when planting small trees and shrubs.
The most important rule about planting a tree is not to plant it too deep. It used to be said that you should plant the tree at the same height it was growing in the nursery. That’s not true anymore. As the tree was transferred into larger and larger containers in the nursery, the chances are high that the roots were buried a little at a time.
The latest University of Florida research suggests that before planting a tree, the purchaser should remove the soil from the top of the rootball until the topmost root is discovered. The tree should then be planted so this topmost root is at or slightly above the soil surface. No soil should be placed on top of the root ball when backfilling the hole.
If when you remove the tree from the container, you notice any circling roots, they should be cut with a box knife or pruning shears. The latest research has determined that any circling root should be cut at the point where it starts to curve along the wall of the planting container. No amendments like fertilizer or manure should be added to the hole. The native soil that is removed when digging the hole is the best soil to put back in the hole when backfilling. If the soil is not the native soil, is fill soil or full of construction debris, it may be better to replace the entire planting area with a good quality soil.
The final step is encouraging the tree to become well-established. The best way to assure this is to provide adequate water for your tree. The water provided by most sprinkler systems is not sufficient for establishing trees. As a general rule of thumb, newly planted trees should be irrigated every day for 1 month; every other day for 3 months; and then weekly until established.
Apply 2-3 gallons of water per inch of trunk diameter of the tree 1 foot above the soil to the root ball at each watering. For instance, a 2-inch diameter tree should receive between 4 and 6 gallons of water at each watering session. A 5-gallon bucket with a tiny hole drilled into it will slowly empty; assuring that the water you apply will go directly to the root ball. Do not water if root ball is wet/saturated on the irrigation day. This schedule can be reduced during the winter.
Mulching the area around the tree after planting creates a competition-free zone for the new tree roots to grow without having to compete with turf. Mulch also adds organic material to the soil as it decomposes. A 3-inch layer of mulch placed in a 6-foot circle around the tree, but no closer than 6 inches to the trunk of the tree, will help the tree establish quicker.
By following these four steps you can be assured that your tree will be a healthy, vibrant part of your landscape for many years to come. For more information, contact the Duval County Extension Office at (904) 255-7450.
Larry Figart is an urban forestry extension agent with the Duval County Extension Service and the University of Florida/IFAS.