Avoid common tree-planting mistakes

Allen D. Owings, Young, John, Gill, Daniel J.  |  10/24/2008 6:14:57 PM

Sustainable Landscape News Distributed 10/24/08

By LSU AgCenter Horticulturists

Fall through winter is the recommended tree-planting season in Louisiana.

Often, poor tree performance in residential, commercial and municipal landscapes can be traced to improper planting techniques, but common mistakes in planting, establishment and follow-up care of trees can be avoided by following easy guidelines.

– Before deciding where to plant a tree, look up. Make sure wires, security lights or buildings are not in the path of the tree’s future growth.

– Don’t plant root balls too deeply. The top of the root ball should be at the same level or slightly higher than the soil grade. Do not cover the lower trunk with soil.

– Don’t plant root balls too shallow. Exposing the top of the root ball to air can dry out the root system.

– Make the planting hole the right width. The hole should be two to three times that of the tree’s root ball. This size allows for lateral root development and expansion. Tree roots primarily grow out from the root ball, not down.

– Don’t plant root-bound trees without adjustments. Cut the encircling roots enough to encourage outward root growth and prevent future circling. Remove any material wrapped around the root ball that will not decompose such as wire, rope, string or synthetic wrapping.

– Apply the proper amount of mulch. Too much mulch or not enough mulch are common problems. Do not pile mulch around the base of trees. Apply mulch no deeper than 3 inches to 4 inches. Pull the mulch back slightly from the trunk. Pine straw, cypress, pine bark and hardwood bark are good mulch materials.

– Don’t amend original soil. This “backfill soil” is the soil removed from the planting hole. Return it to the planting hole without anything added to it, such as pine bark, compost or similar materials. Amended backfill soil can interfere with proper drainage, leading to excessive moisture around the roots (the "soup bowl" effect). Amending the backfill soil also can discourage new roots from growing out into the soil beyond the planting hole.

– Water properly. Newly planted trees need to be sufficiently “watered in.” This process eliminates air pockets in the soil that dry out the root system. Apply water at the edge of the original root ball and outward. Do not apply water next to the main stem. Also plan on watering the tree as needed the first summer it is in the ground.

– Hold off on the pruning. The only pruning of shoot growth that should be done at planting is to remove any dead material, broken branches, suckers and so forth. Leave some branches on the lower part of the trunk for a year or so. This encourages trunk development. Excessive pruning of shoots at planting also can promote additional shoot growth at a time when root growth is desired.

– Test soil for pH level and nutrient content. How many of us actually have a soil analysis done prior to planting? Knowing your soil pH is important in selecting a tree that will do well in that environment. A soil test also provides status of mineral nutrients, and this can help you decide the best type of fertilizer to use.

More information on home landscaping from the LSU AgCenter and details on horticulture work at LaHouse can be found at www.lsuagcenter.com and www.louisianahouse.org.

LaHouse is located near the intersection of Burbank Drive and Nicholson Drive (Louisiana Highway 30) in Baton Rouge across the street from the new LSU baseball stadium. For more information, go to www.louisianahouse.org and www.lsuagcenter.com/lyn.

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Contacts:
Dan Gill at (225) 578-2222 or dgill@agcenter.lsu.edu
Allen D. Owings at (985) 543-4125 or aowings@agcenter.lsu.edu
John Young at (225) 578-2415 or (225) 578-2222 or JoYoung@agcenter.lsu.edu
Editor: Mark Claesgens at (225) 578-2939 or mclaesgens@agcenter.lsu.edu

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