Don’t Impulse Buy Trees

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Some people shop for landscape trees and shrubs the same way that they’d shop for fruit and vegetables: if it looks or smells good, buy it. Problem is that trees and shrubs continue to grow and change when we get them home, in some cases for 20, 30 or even a hundred years. And while most of us are knowledgeable about where to put fruits and vegetables from the grocer, many a homeowner hasn’t the foggiest idea where to put a large feature tree or shrub. Yet that won’t stop many a Hamptonian from buying one simply because it looks nice or smells good, price be damned.

We’re only weeks away from prime planting season for balled and burlapped or container-grown deciduous trees, shrubs and some evergreens. Many of you will find some irresistible bargains at local nurseries but before you start buying, STOP! and take a little break to consider if what you want will survive where you want it.

For example, do you want to replace that tree damaged by Sandy with the same tree? Or maybe something a bit more storm-resistant?

To start with, any tree or shrub that is to grow and perform to its maximum potential must be compatible with its planting site.

Most plants fail because they are either not suited to their location or because of neglect. The following factors should be taken into consideration before purchasing and planting: the hardiness zone, the micro environment, the soil type and drainage, and the purpose.

For the hardiness zone, use a new U.S. Department of Agriculture or American Horticulture Society Hardiness Zone map to determine if a particular species can survive here. The plant should be grown in an area within 100 miles north or south and within 1,000 feet of elevation of the planting site.

I’m sure that many of you don’t realize that many nurseries sell plant material that is trucked in from Oregon, North Carolina and many southern states. Will they survive as well as the same specimen grown in Pennsylvania, Long Island or New Jersey?

For the micro environment, also called the micro-climate, examine the potential planting site. Is it along a south-facing wall of a house? You might actually be able to plant a tree slightly less hardy or “risky” in this location than on an exposed western or northern site.

Many species are quite particular about sunlight. Ask yourself if there will be too much or too little. If you are trying to stretch the planting envelope, you might be inviting failure.

For the soil type, a tree’s compatibility with the planting site also depends on the soil type. Use an indicator strip to determine the soil pH. Indicator strips are available at virtually all garden centers and are easy to use.

If the soil is acid (most East End locations are), consider azalea, dogwood, oak, rhododendron and yew. If your soil is alkaline (or if you make it that way), you can consider honey locusts, Kentucky coffee tree, mock orange, locust and lilac. Consider also that a plant grown in a nursery with very sandy soil may not do well in a location that has heavy clay soil, and vice versa.

For soil drainage, check drainage (percolation) before you plant or buy. In most situations you can determine soil drainage by digging a hole at the planting site, filling it with water and letting it drain. Refill the hole again and watch how fast the water drains.

Normal drainage exists when water drains about 1 inch per hour. Soils can be amended, to a degree.

For purpose, you need to determine what the plant is going to be used for, whether it’s providing shade to your home or yard, adding color to the landscape or used as a buffer. Also consider the age of the tree being planted and how it will look in 5, 10 and 20 years.

Will it still fit the site when it’s mature? Will its falling leaves forever clog your gutters or swimming pool skimmers?

Once you’ve determined the tree’s purpose and planting site characteristics, choose the right tree. At the nursery examine it thoroughly.

Good leaf color and size and well-developed root systems are two signs of a healthy tree or shrub. On trees, leaves should be evenly distributed on the upper two-thirds of the tree. Twig growth is another factor. To check twig growth, measure the distance between bud scale scars, which are left when terminal buds open in the spring.

Normal twig growth varies from 4 to 20 inches per year, depending on the species. Check also for stem cankers—sunken areas that indicate poor plant health.

Now, for the business of the actual planting.

Some nurseries will offer you two prices. One will be for the tree, professional planting and a two-year guarantee (by the way, don’t accept less than two years). The second price will be straight out of the nursery, maybe delivered, but with no planting and little or no guarantee.

When planting, the root ball should sit on the bottom of the hole and not on loose-fill soil. If the hole is too deep, compact some fill soil in the hole with your foot. Never add rocks to a hole that is too deep.

After the root ball is set in, remove the twine and wrapping from the top and sides. Synthetic burlap and plastic twine will not decompose and will girdle roots that are trying to grow. Cut these materials off if possible, or at least make numerous slits and cuts in the material. Natural burlap needs only to be unwound from the trunk of the plant and it will decay after a short time.

Use the original soil from the hole as backfill or mix the soil with good compost and fill in lightly with water to eliminate air pockets. When in doubt always plant high, not low; I can’t say that enough times.

Don’t tamp the root ball down with your boots, tools or sticks. Watering puts the soil in direct contact with the roots and no other settling is needed.

Now you can mulch the planting area with wood chips (aged), peat moss or composted leaves. This mulch will enable the soil to hold more water, keep cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, and results in optimal root development.

The mulch should only be 2 to 4 inches deep at the tree’s or shrub’s drip line to only 1/2 inch near the stem or trunk. Never pile mulch around the trunk, leave the mulch 2 to 4 inches away from the bark.

Water carefully for the first year, or longer if you can. There are additives that you can add to the soil or the water that will improve and encourage new rooting.

Proper watering results in the correct balance between water and oxygen. Overwatering depletes the oxygen and chokes the roots.

To check the soil moisture, remove a small amount of soil from the root area using a soil probe or trowel. The soil is too dry if it crumbles in your hand instead of holding together in a moist ball.

Take good care of your landscape investments by buying right and planting right. Then it’s easy to keep growing

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