The most important steps in caring for a young tree start before you buy the tree, according to a community forestry expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.
"The crucial part of choosing a tree is matching a tree to the spot you've selected," says Bill Elmendorf, instructor and urban and community forest program coordinator in the School of Forest Resources.
Elmendorf suggests consumers think carefully about the color, size and branching shape of a tree before choosing a planting site. Then, once a site is chosen, the homeowner should carefully examine the site conditions for:
- Soil pH
- Soil compaction
- Presence of sun or shade
"Then you can pick a tree that is tolerant of the conditions and can adapt easily to the site," Elmendorf says. "The idea is to prevent as much care and maintenance as you can before you buy the tree."
When buying the tree, spend as much time as possible checking for damage, disease or quality problems. "Don't buy a tree just because it's on sale. Buy the tree that you want from a quality nursery or home center," Elmendorf says.
After the purchase, Elmendorf suggests some do's and don'ts for tree buyers.
- Don't transport the tree unprotected. Cover or wrap the tree in a tarp or plastic sheeting. "If you throw the tree in the back of a pickup and race home at 65 miles per hour, the tree will be damaged by leaf loss, and the wind will dry out the plant," Elmendorf warns.
- Do handle the tree carefully. Trees never should be lifted by the trunk or lifted using chains or ropes around the trunk. Elmendorf recommends lifting the tree by the root ball.
- Don't hesitate to plant the tree. Elmendorf suggests storing a tree no longer than a week. If the tree must be stored, cover the root ball in mulch and keep it moist.
- Do prune before planting, but not too much. Limited pruning, such as eliminating crossed branches or damaged limbs, is acceptable. "Don't prune away leaves unless absolutely necessary," Elmendorf explains. "Leaves give trees the energy for growing roots."
Digging a hole for the tree may seem the simplest part of the job, but Elmendorf warns that attention must be paid to the dirty work. "What consumers have to understand is you can't plant a $100 tree in a $1 hole," Elmendorf says.
In general, foresters recommend that trees be planted in wide holes, at least three times the width of the root ball. The top of the root ball should be level with the existing terrain. The root ball should rest on firm soil and in most cases original soils can be used to fill in the hole.
"If the soil is really poor or full of rubble, you can fill the hole with high quality top soil," Elmendorf says. "In most cases you shouldn't use peat moss or soil amendments because they act as a sponge and retain water, especially in clay soils."
Elmendorf recommends watering the tree as soon as it is planted, using a slow soaking watering that gets to the bottom of the root ball. To retain moisture, he suggests spreading 2 to 3 inches of mulch at the base of the tree. "Keep the mulch 2 to 3 inches away from the trunk because it can rot the bark, and don't make a mountain of mulch," he says.
After the first year, the tree should be watered beyond the root ball, preferably out to where the foliage ends. Elmendorf says fertilizers shouldn't be used in the first year. "The roots aren't developed enough to take advantage of the fertilizer," he warns. "In many cases, soils in Pennsylvania do not need fertilizer. Too much fertilizer can cause too much growth, which invites storm damage or insect damage."
Elmendorf says trees usually do not require stake supports, unless the planting site is extremely windy or in an area where trees might be vandalized. If homeowners do use stakes, he recommends using rubber or plastic ties rather than wire.
Homeowners should prune to refine and protect the shape of the tree between the third and fifth year. He also recommends keeping the tree mulched throughout its lifetime to help it better absorb nutrients, stop competition from turfgrass and prevent damage from lawn equipment.
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