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All things garden: Take this tree advice

Take this tree advice

Shopping for a tree? A little detective work get you a happy, healthy tree that’s much more likely to thrive in your garden. Here are some tips.

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Bigger isn’t better. Don’t buy too large a tree in too small a container. It may seem like a good deal, but it likely has a condition called girdling roots, or pot-bound; the roots have grown into a circle around the edge of the pot. If the condition is uncorrected, the tree may choke itself to death or snap off at the base years after planting.

The thick of it. Look for trees with thick trunks for their height and lower foliage along the trunk. Lower foliage feeds and strengthens the trunk directly. It also helps prevent trunk sunburn, which can devastate a tree’s health.

In too deep? The tree should also be planted at the right depth in the container. A tree planted too deep can often already have developed disease on the trunk tissue. To see if it’s planted at the right depth, wiggle it in the can or box. If the trunk is pivoting down below the soil, kind of “wallowing” around in the soil, it’s likely planted too deep. The wiggle test also helps determine if the tree has the girdling root condition. If, upon wiggling the tree, you see a heaving plate of soil in a smaller circle, or a distinct curved line where the soil is separating, that tree is likely girdled.

Like ’em young. Younger trees establish more quickly, take off faster and are healthier and bigger in the long run. My preferred size for new trees is 15-gallon, and if I can find a 5-gallon specimen, I’ll often opt for that. Trees that are smaller at planting time often end up larger than their bigger-planted cousins in a relatively short time — and you pay less in money and labor.


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Power plant

I’ve always said that one of the keys to successful gardening is to put a plant where it wants to be, give it room to grow — then sit back and enjoy a glass of wine. It’s a little more complicated than that, though. Once you’ve decided on the right plant for the right place, proper planting techniques will help assure a long-lived, healthy plant.

Oversize the planting hole. The planting hole should be twice the diameter of the container of the plant at the top, and the same size as the diameter at the bottom. But don’t dig any deeper than the depth of the soil in the pot. The planting hole will have a sloping edge, which helps encourage root development into the surrounding soil.

Amend the soils. Non-desert species often dislike our alkaline soils. To amend the soil, add the following to the pile of dirt from the hole: 1) Well-decomposed organic matter (it should look like dark, rich soil), at a rate of about 15 percent compared to the pile of backfill. 2) bone meal, 3) soil sulfur pellets (dissolved in water), 4) a good pre-plant fertilizer like Gro-Power Flower-n-Bloom 3-12-12.

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Handle with care. Handle the root ball gently when removing it from the container. Gently push with long strokes with the ball of your hand on the sides of the container to loosen it, then push up from the bottom of the pot to break it loose. For smaller plants, kneading the edge of the root ball helps break the roots loose and will encourage them to grow into the surrounding soil. For larger, woody plants, use hand pruners to cut the root ball out with vertical slices about an inch deep about every five or six inches around the pot.


Newly planted trees often require staking to get them off to a good start, promoting root development and supporting weak trunks. The stake that comes with your tree is called the nursery stake or transport stake, and it should be removed the day it’s planted. These stakes are right up against the trunk and can cause injury in the long term by rubbing against the tree’s trunk tissue.

If staking is required, purchase “lodge-pole” stakes. Use two or three stakes per tree, set deep into the soil, outside of the tree’s root ball. Use a flexible tie material that is not too thin, so that it doesn’t cut into the trunk tissue.

Don’t stake your tree too firmly. It should be able to move in the wind. This movement encourages the trunk to grow stronger. The rule of thumb from the International Society of Arboriculture is that trees should not be left staked more than one year.

Along with staking, protect your new tree from sunburn, which can devastate the tree. Protect an exposed trunk with a water-based white paint, or a product like Easy Gardener Jobes Tree Wrap. It stretches and expands with the trunk and provides great initial protection. Remove it entirely after two or three summers have passed.