Spring Tree Planting tips

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"Whether you are replacing a downed tree or planting a new one in the landscape, it is important to understand the proper practices of planting a tree, as well as, the benefits it may have to your home," says University of Illinois Horticulture Educator, Kelly Allsup.

Trees are well known for their cooling effect as they block the sun's rays and water evaporates from the leaf surface. They absorb and block noise and pollution while creating a habitat for wildlife and generating a woodsy oasis around your home. Most of all, trees absorb carbon and reduce its detrimental effects on the environment.

While trees have multiple benefits, a misplaced tree in the landscape can cause future frustration and is the most common mistake that gardeners make; they plant trees that do not match the soil and site and/or they do not take into consideration the size of the tree at maturation. If you plant a tree too close to the house or under overhead wires, you are bound to regret your decision.

Another contribution to tree planting failure is purchasing unhealthy, containerized trees and shrubs. When buying containerized trees make sure the soil has not receded from the sides of the pot, as this is a sign of the plant remaining in the pot too long. Make sure there are healthy white roots that fill the pot but are not circling or girdling.

When you buy ball and burlap trees, understand that they have lost between 90 and 95% of their roots during the process of being dug up and prepped for sale. After being transplanted, it is not uncommon for these trees to experience transplant shock, a period of slow growth.

When planting trees, it's important to place them in wide, shallow holes, never covering the top of the root ball more than one inch. It is also important to observe where the trunk of the tree flares out and keep that area above the soil line. Dig the hole three times wider than the root ball as tree roots grow wide and in the top 12-18" of the soil. It is not unusual to have to remove a couple of inches or more of soil from the bottom of a tree to find the flare before planting.

If you amend the planting hole with looser soil or compost then it is important to know that it should be mixed with existing soil to prevent roots from mining only the good soils. Be sure to remove any burlap and baskets. You may have been taught to leave the burlap bag in place, but if you have ever seen 17-year-old burlap, you know that the roots are simply unable to penetrate through it.

Large and circling roots should be cut away. Recent studies from the University of Florida have shown that shaving the outer roots are the best method to produce a higher quality root system and prevent any defects that may occur. This method is compared to slicing the root ball on the side from top to bottom or teasing the roots out at the bottom. Shaving takes about one to two inches off the entire outer portion of the root ball with a hand saw.

While backfilling, amend the existing soil and gradually add water to remove air pockets; this is known as the slurry method and will prevent settling below the flare of the tree trunk. University of Illinois Extension Local Foods and Systems Educator, Bill Davison, adds decaying leaves or wood chips to introduce mychorrizal spores and "mimic a woodland setting." Mychorrizal fungi have a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship with plant roots in the natural world.

The watering needs for the first three to five years of a tree is one inch of rainfall or five gallons per week. Create a bit of a donut shape with the mulch so that water will settle around the roots. Mulching 2-4″ thick around the tree will help to prevent competition with weeds and will also aid in maintaining good water retention. The larger the mulch ring is around the tree, the better. Do not remove the lower limbs because they will contribute significantly to trunk growth and diameter of the trees in the early years. If you live in windy areas, it is important to use stakes.

Follow these tips this spring to ensure many more years with your tree. For more information, contact Kelly Allsup, Extension unit educator, Horticulture-Livingston, McLean and Woodford Unit at (309) 663-8306 or email Kelly at kallsup@illinois.edu