Selecting and Planting Trees

New subdivisions, new landscapes. You’ve seen them - those long naked blocks exposed to intense sun, the new sod crisping and the air conditioning working all hours of the day. It just isn't home until the trees come to town. If your landscape is in need of tree cover or you simply want to add a new green beauty to the premises, this article will guide you to choosing the right tree for your needs as well as offer sound advice for planting and care.

First of all, assess your landscape and garden. You want to think about the function of the proposed tree apart from its aesthetic appeal. Does the setting require shade, shelter or screening one area from another? You may opt for an avenue of trees, a border or even a simple focal point tree to fill a bare niche in the yard. Naturally, your need will influence the type of tree(s) you choose. Also, your climate and conditions will dictate which trees will grow best in your area.

Of course, most of us have favorite trees beloved for nostalgic reasons or simply because a certain form is most pleasing to our eye. Form is a terrific way to narrow down your tree choices. Trees come in such forms as weeping, conical, columnar, spreading and round. Certain forms may be best suited to different areas of the landscape. A spreader makes an attractive focal point. A row of conical trees makes a great border. Columnar trees are often planted near the house itself. Also, if you choose a combination of deciduous trees and evergreens, your landscape is likely to provide year-round visual interest.

When it comes time to select a tree, choose a healthy specimen and not necessarily a big one. Large, more mature trees have a more difficult time adapting to transplantation. It may even take a large specimen a few years to begin growing again as it must first integrate its roots into its new home. Purchase your trees only from the most reputable nurseries and be sure to check into replacement policies should your new tree die within a few months of purchase. Avoid trees with roots growing in kinked or distorted knots - invariably such trees will sport weak and potentially unstable trunks.

Most experts agree that the ideal time to plant trees is in the fall. Generally, there is enough warmth for roots to settle in without the stress of intense summer heat. However, many plant trees in spring, but it is always best to plant your specimens right away after you get them home. If you cannot plant immediately, keep your bare root species in a weather-protected area and cover them with slightly dampened sawdust. Contained plants should be kept in the shade and watered frequently. Balled and burlap trees must also be kept in shade and standing in an upright position. Additionally, it doesn’t hurt to keep balled and burlap trees with the roots soaking in a bucket of water overnight; this will make the roots well plumped.

While a particular species will have its own needs, most trees require adequately well-drained soil and some sunlight. Where you plant them on the grounds is extremely important. For instance, the further away from the house the better, because trees planted too close to the structure can leave rooms darkened and even interfere with the structure itself, damaging foundations or penetrating drains. The root systems of willows are particularly aggressive so they should be planted well away from the structure.

It may also be necessary to test the soil before purchasing your trees, as some species prefer a more acidic or alkaline soil. Once you choose a spot, dig a hole that is both deep and broad enough to accommodate your tree's root ball or spreading roots with a bit of breathing room to spare. It is a good idea to loosen the soil at the hole's bottom and add peat moss, compost, rotted manure or some organic matter to give your tree that extra needed boost to get comfortable in its new home. A dose of vitamin B, available at garden centers, will also help your tree adjust to the new planting.

At this point it's a good idea to get your stake planted; if you wait until later, you might inadvertently damage the roots by hammering one in. Secure your tree's trunk to the stake with plastic ties (very small saplings should use loop stakes which allow for swaying in the wind). These ties will need to be adjusted as your tree grows to prevent undue pressure. If possible, a tree does better without the aid of a stake; swaying in the wind allows the trunk to grow up sturdy, but many specimens simply cannot stand on their own until the roots have had a chance to firmly develop.

Fill in your hole with the enriched soil and give the roots a hardy soak with water. Be sure the earth is well tamped around your tree to decrease the chance of air pockets. Also, consider using tree guards to protect the immature bark of your new trees. Once your tree is in place, prune away branches and leaves that are not necessary so the roots can focus on adapting rather than supporting the additional foliage.

Gardeners should also spread some mulch around the base of the new tree to help lock in soil moisture and prevent weed growth. Laying newspaper beneath some bark mulch is a wonderfully effective method for both moisture retention and weed control. Your mulch layer should be between two and four inches deep. Be sure to mound the mulch away from the tree trunk. If weeds or grass still pop up through your mulch layer (which is why the newspaper is so beneficial), remove them right away.

Keep in mind that the bark of young trees is actually susceptible to sunburn. If your young tree is exposed to direct sunlight, wrap its trunk in burlap or give it a whitewash with some white latex paint. An adequate supply of water is utterly important, particularly that first year. Even drought-tolerant varieties must be watered with care for the first year after they are planted. Thirsty trees grow weak quickly and then become vulnerable to disease and pests. Be sure to irrigate your tree slowly allowing the water to penetrate deeply; a shallow watering can be damaging to trees and shrubs. Once your tree is firmly ensconces after a year or two, its roots should able to absorb moisture from the soil, but in times of very little rain or drought, it never hurts to give them a long healthy drink.

Finally, while mature trees don't require fertilizing, it can be very helpful for your young trees, although its best to wait to fertilize until you see new growth after the transplanting. Be on the lookout for pests and disease, too. Oil sprays are very effective and a safe, nontoxic way of dealing with aphids, mites or various tree insects. Knowing your individual tree's needs and susceptibilities will also help you maintain its overall health, especially during this most vulnerable time in a tree’s life. For winter protection, young saplings can do with some wire mesh circled around their bases. Consider encircling them with burlap to keep off the icy winds.

Trees are dramatic statements for any landscape. They provide shade and, of course, beauty. Giving great care to your young trees will result in healthy plants that will provide beauty to your setting for years - and decades - to come.