- Author: Janet Hartin
Do you have Spring Fever? If you have adequate space, why not leave a legacy to your children's children by planting a tree? When the right species is planted in the right location with the right care, landscape trees can be enjoyed for 100 years or more. Landscape trees cool urban heat islands, absorb carbon dioxide, filter toxic chemicals from soil preventing them from polluting our waterways, reduce soil and water erosion, reduce internal energy needs and related costs, provide habitat, and beautify neighborhoods.
Spring is a much better times to plant a container landscape tree in California than is summer. Trees incur far less stress if they've been in the ground several weeks rather than having to immediately adapt to high summer temperatures. Cooler weather allows plants to establish roots in their new ‘home' before the harshness of summer sets in. (Deciduous bare-root fruit trees, on the other hand, should be planted during the winter when they are dormant.) Choose recommended species for your climate and micro-climate.
Choose trees based on your Sunset climate zone (more precise than USDA zones for California since they include impacts of high temperatures as well as low temperatures) and your microclimate (shade, soil conditions, space, etc.). Four of my favorite search engines that allow one to search by multiple criteria (size, water needs, flower color, ecosystem functions, pest susceptibility, etc.) are: Inland Valley Garden Planner: https://inlandvalleygardenplanner.org/; Cal Poly, Pomona: https://selectree.calpoly.edu;California Native Plant Society: http://www.cnps.org/cnps/grownative/lists.php; and WUCOLS IV (Water Use Classification of Landscape Species): http://ucanr.edu/sites/WUCOLS
Avoid circled, girdled roots. Remember to inspect the root system of container trees. Avoid purchasing specimens with severely circled and girdled roots. Root pruning will not solve the problem and the resulting tree is much more prone to failure later. This occurs because the upper portion of the tree continues to grow and expand while the root system lacks the breadth and architectural strength to support the tree. Many times a tree will look fine for several years and - seemingly - very suddenly topple in winds that otherwise it could sustain with a more adequate root system. Only when the tree falls does the owner actually notice firsthand that the root system is the same size it was when the tree was planted years before!
Check drainage before you plant. Dig a hole where you are planning on planting the tree, fill it with water, and make sure it completely drains within 24-hours. If it doesn't drain, don't plant a tree there. In some cases, trees are carefully selected based on species and location only to perish ten or more years later due to poor drainage and water-logged soil. Trees often die in these situations due to a lack of aeration setting them up for disease-causing fungal pathogens.
Planting the tree. Dig a hole at least 2-1/2 times the width of the container (in clay or compacted soils make the hole at least 4-5 times wider) up to two inches shallower than the depth of the tree in the container to compensate for settling. Use a shovel or trowel to roughen the soil on the sides of the hole to encourage root growth into the native soil. Remove the tree from the container along with any loose soil that covers the lower part of the trunk. Carefully place the tree in the planting hole, keeping the trunk flare (the area where the trunk widens and connects with the roots) 1-2 inches above the existing grade. Gently fill the hole with the same soil that was removed. Do not add soil amendments or compost, another common cause of circled and kinked roots.
Water the tree regularly until established (one or more seasons). Water immediately after planting making sure to moisten the entire root system and a few inches below it. Many recently planted trees die due to the common misconception that they require little or no water if they are native or low water using species! Recently transplanted trees have a small volume of roots that dry out very quickly. Water newly planted trees regularly through the first season. Trees in sandy soils require more frequent watering than do trees in heavier soils with appreciable clay content. Heavier soils absorb water slower but retain it longer and should be watered longer but less often. (After trees are fully established, irrigation frequency should be reduced but more water should be added during each irrigation.)
Avoid staking trees unless necessary. Stake trees only if they were staked at the nursery and/or if they are planted in a wind-prone area. Remember to loosen ties on nursery stock before they girdle the trunk. Gently secure any tree requiring staking with two opposing flexible ties on the lower half of the tree, allowing the tree to gently blow in the wind to encourage lower trunk strength. Avoids taking trees tightly, restricting flex. As the tree matures, remember to loosen ties and aim for removing stakes entirely if the tree is self-supporting.
Pruning. Avoid heavy pruning at the time of planting. Remove only broken branches, crossed branches and suckers at the base of the tree.
Fertilizing. Most trees have received adequate nutrition in the nursery and do not need fertilizer at the time of planting.
Mulching. Apply a 2-4 inch layer of mulch three or more inches away from the tree trunk. Organic mulches such as woodchips and compost should be applied and maintained at a depth of 3-4 inches to prevent weed seeds from sprouting. Inorganic mulches (gravel, pebbles, etc.) should be maintained at 2-3 inches. In fire-prone areas, organic mulches near the urban/forest interface should be avoided. Remember to irrigate below the mulch.
For more information on tree planting and care and all other home gardening and landscape topics, contact the UCCE San Bernardino County Master Gardener Helpline at email@example.com