KC Gardens

Dennis Patton: You can plant that tree now, and here are some tips for success

By Dennis Patton

Planting a tree.
Planting a tree. Provided.

The old saying about trees goes something like this. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago and the next best time to plant a new tree is today. Trees are a long-term investment. It takes years for them to reach size and become a special part of the landscape that provides not only function but also beauty. Care must be taken to properly plant a tree so success and beauty can be achieved.

Find the Flare

Research has found that many trees grown in the wholesale nursery have compromised root systems. This happens as the growing trees are cultivated by throwing soil over the roots. Container-grown trees can be planted too deeply. The result of buried roots is slow establishment and growth throughout their life. This excess soil will compromise the root system once the tree is planted in our heavy clay soils. But a tree has a simple way of letting you know at what level in the soil it would like to grow. That level is called the root flare.

The root flare is the point at which the first one or two roots emerge from the main trunk. Finding the root flare just takes a little careful digging. Using your fingers or a trowel gently remove the soil from around the trunk of your tree until you find this root flare. Be careful not to scrape the bark of the tree.

Slowly scrape away the soil until a main root is coming out from the trunk. This then becomes that level or depth that the tree will be planted. Planting too deeply will damage the roots and greatly slow the establishment of the tree.

Prepare the Planting Hole

Research has also found we tend to plant the trees too deeply because we don’t dig the hole properly. The depth of the planting hole should be dug no deeper than the height of the rootball from the bottom base to the root flare. People tend to dig the planting hole deeper than necessary. The result is that as the freshly dug soil settles the tree sinks and the roots end up deeper in the ground reducing needed oxygen for growth. The result is slowed establishment and growth.

The hole can be dug as wide as you would like but just not deeper. Research has determined that young tree roots grow out away from the trunk not downward. For this reason, dig the hole at least two times the diameter of the root ball. Some research even suggests five times the width. This loosens the soil, removes grass competition and greatly increases early establishment and growth.

Check the Roots

Research has found when trees are produced in containers, the roots have no way to grow out but instead wrap around the pot. This creates girdling roots. Girdling means to choke, which is what happens as the tree develops. These roots that are circling around the main trunk increase in size along with the trunk and the end result is a strangling that reduces the movement of water and nutrients up and down the tree. The result is poor growth or death.

Once the root flare is exposed check for these circling roots. Take a pair of hand pruners and simply cut them out of the tree. This sounds harsh but it is the best practice for long-term growth.

These are just three simple tips that can help you have greater success in planting a new tree in the landscape. Remember the other old saying about tree planting — right tree, right place, planted in the right way.

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