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Six Steps to Healthy Trees

The importance of trees to the quality of our landscape is obvious. Caring for that investment is also important.

Here then are 6 steps in tree care.

#1 Don't top trees!

Never cut main branches back to stubs. Many people mistakenly "top" trees because they grow into utility wires, interfere with views or sunlight, or simply grow so large that they worry the landowner.

The topping process is often self-defeating. Ugly, bushy, weakly attached limbs usually grow back higher than the original branches.

Proper pruning removes excessive growth without the problems topping creates. Many arborists say topping is the worst thing you can do for the health of a tree. It starves the tree by drastically reducing its food-making ability and makes the tree more susceptible to insects and disease.

#2 Follow the 1/3 and 1/4 Rules of Pruning.

Never remove more than 1/4 of a tree's crown in a season.

Where possible, encourage side branches that form angles that are 1/3 off vertical (10:00 or 2:00 positions).

For most species, the tree should have a single trunk. The main side branches should be at least 1/3 smaller than the diameter of the trunk.

If removal of a main branch is necessary, cut it back to where it is attached to another large branch or the trunk. Do not truncate or leave a stub.

For most deciduous (broadleaf) trees, don't prune up from the bottom any more than 1/3 of the tree's total height.

#3 The value of mulch for trees

Mulch insulates soil, retains moisture, keeps out weeds, prevents soil compaction, reduces lawnmower damage, and adds an aesthetic touch to a yard or street. When applying mulch for the first time around a tree, remove any grass within the planned mulching area. Pour wood chips or bark pieces 2" — 4" deep within the cleared circle, but not touching the trunk. Never pile mulch, or additional soil against the tree's trunk.

#4 Understand where tree roots actually grow

Because roots need oxygen, they don't normally grow in the compacted oxygen-poor soil under paved streets. The framework of major roots usually lies less than 8" — 12" below the surface. Roots often grow outward to a diameter 1 - 2 times the height of the trees.

#5 Understand that girdling will kill a tree

Girdling is any activity that injures the bark of a tree trunk and extends around much of the trunk's circumference.

Such injuries, often caused by lawnmowers and weed trimmers, and sometimes by deer or small rodents, destroy the tree's most vital membranes, the layers that conduct water and minerals from the roots to the leaves and return the food produced by the leaves to the rest of the tree. Once this layer is destroyed, the tree doesn't have the capacity to repair itself and will die.

#6 Proper tree planting makes a world of difference

Planted correctly, a tree will grow twice as fast and live twice as long as one planted incorrectly. Here are some instructions for both bare root and containerized/potted trees:

Planting tips

Planting containerized trees

Ideally, dig or rototill an area one foot deep and approximately 5 times the diameter of the root ball. The prepared soil will encourage root growth beyond the root ball and results in a healthier tree.

In transplanting, be sure to keep soil around the roots. Always handle your tree by the ball, not by the trunk or branches. Don't let the root ball dry out. Help prevent root girdling (the process of roots growing in a circular manner that eventually strangles itself) by vertically cutting any roots that show tendencies to circle the root ball.

Pack soil firmly but not tightly around the root ball after placing it in the hole. Water the soil and place a protective 3' circle of mulch around the tree.


Planting a bare-root tree

Plant bare-root trees immediately to keep the fragile roots from drying out. If you can't plant because of weather or soil conditions, store the trees in a cool place and keep the roots evenly moist, but don't drown it in a bucket filled with water if you can't plant for more than a day.

  1. Unpack tree and soak in water 3 — 6 hours. Do not plant with packing materials attached to roots, and don't allow roots to dry out.

  2. Dig a hole, wider than seems necessary, so the roots can be spread around without crowding. Remove any grass within a three-foot circular area. To aid root growth, turn soil in an area up to 3' in diameter.

  3. Plant the tree at the same depth it stood in the nursery, without crowding the roots. Partially fill the hole, firming the soil around the lower roots. Do not add soil amendments.

  4. Shovel in the remaining soil. It should be firmly, but not tightly packed with your heel. Construct a water-holding basin around the tree. Give the tree plenty of water.

  5. After the water has soaked in, place a 2" deep protective mulch area 3' in diameter around the base of the tree (but not touching the trunk).

  6. Water the tree generously every week or 10 days during the first year. Make sure you have no standing water in the new tree site.


Specimen trees ideal for the American Landscape