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Garden Guru: Give thanks for trees, and plant a new one

This week we celebrate two days that help us turn our attention toward making our planet a better place.

On Tuesday, we celebrate Earth Day, which turns our consciousness to the Earth, and more specifically, to our place in it.

Then on Friday, we celebrate National Arbor Day (for some reason, West Virginia Arbor Day was April 11), when we celebrate the role of trees on the Earth and in our lives.

The problem that I have with these celebrations, though, is that we generally celebrate the idea of trees and stewardship rather than actually doing something about it.

So it is a good time to talk about trees — not just why they are good for the environment, but also the many other benefits of trees. And, of course, we will talk about planting trees in our home landscape, since this is a gardening article after all.

The benefit of trees

Every year at our 4-H Outdoor Classroom, I ask the several hundred fourth-graders what we get from trees, and the first (and sometimes only) thing they say without prompting is oxygen and start talking about how we need to protect rain forests.

Granted, oxygen is very important, but trees offer us so much more — and trees are found in many more areas than the rain forest.

In fact, the vast majority of our state is covered in trees.

Aside from oxygen, trees provide us benefits both in products we produce from them and through their presence in our landscape.

Trees play an important role in our society in that we use them as a major source of building materials in the form of lumber and plywood.

They also provide the paper on which we print our work documents, books, newspapers and more. We enjoy the fruits they produce, and the syrup from their sap, and the energy produced from their burning.

We even enjoy the byproducts from their use such as compost, mulch and charcoal (some of which is produced right here in our state).

Trees also provide invaluable service in our landscapes.

We relax under shade trees and also depend on them to cast shade on our houses to reduce our cooling costs.

We enjoy their beautiful flowers that bring color in spring and summer and their beautiful autumn colors. (It’s not all a bed of roses, though; those of us with allergies suffer under the oppression of their spring pollen.)

They provide screening from unsightly views, noise and excessive light. They also provide habitat for wildlife such as songbirds.

We have a lot to be thankful for when it comes to trees. But we do also have to remember that we are stewards of the trees.

When we use them, we need to make sure that they are replaced or harvested responsibly to allow for succession, and when we plant them in our own landscapes, we definitely should be ready to be good stewards and care for them over their long lifetimes.

Planting and caring for trees

First and foremost, it is important to give trees a good start by planting them correctly.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation on the subject passed down from generations and now pervading the Internet.

As someone once told me, you don’t want to plant a $50 tree in a $5 hole. The planting method will depend on whether you buy a tree in a container or if you get one that is bare root.

For container (or ball and burlap) trees, you’ll want to dig the planting hole at least 12 inches wider than the size of the root ball.

The hole should be no deeper, and could even be an inch or two shallower, than the root ball of the tree so that there is no settling after planting.

For bare-root plants, the hole only needs to be a few inches wide to accommodate the new roots.

Making a mound in the bottom for the roots to settle on also is a good idea.

Whenever you plant a tree, it is never a good idea to amend the backfill soil with organic matter. This goes against our recommendations for other things like perennials, but it is really important for the health of the tree.

You can add some of the soil from the container the tree came in, but if you make the soil inside the hole really attractive to the tree, the roots may not want to leave. You could end up with a “potbound” situation in which the tree roots can actually grow around the hole and girdle and strangle the tree in a few years.

You should mainly use the soil you dug out of the hole, even if it is heavy clay. If you are worried that your soil is too heavy, dig the hole out to a larger size to give more aeration.

Avoid products you now see on the market like soils specifically for trees and shrubs — they are bad news.

After you plant a tree, you should stake it to keep it growing straight up until the roots get a firm grip. You should be able to remove the stake after the first year, and if the tree is still moving around it’s not a “happy little tree.”

I would suggest doing a soil test to find out exactly what nutrients your tree will need, but an application of a basic complete fertilizer in the fall will do. You should aim to apply about 2 pounds of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of root area (to the drip line of the tree and maybe a little beyond). So if you are using 10-10-10, it would be 20 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

And for the love of all that is good and decent, don’t use those tree fertilizer spikes! They fertilize the tree unevenly and cause more problems than they help.

This week in the garden

n Seed peas, carrots, Swiss chard, sweet corn and Asian greens.

n Seed new lawns.

n Transplant leeks.

n Plant summer-flowering shrubs.

n Apply pre-emergent weed control.

n Begin spraying fruit trees after petal fall.


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