For most of us, early spring is the best time to plant trees. As long as you are not expecting any hard, killing frosts, the trees will love having the whole spring and summer to get well-established. But if you live in the south, hot summers tend to tax young trees’ ability to take up water faster than it loses water through it’s leaves, so you should plant new trees in early fall. Fall planting is also good for just about anyone that has a long, mild fall.
Where to get trees
I know–you’re looking at all the seed catalogs with all their wonderful tree selections and you’re tempted to order one of each. Don’t do it. Catalogs have amazing variety and really good prices. But you are taking big chances with trees from a catalog. I’ve found that buying from local sources ensures that you are getting a variety suited to your climate and a usually a far more vigorous plant. We got our first Connell Red apple tree (one of the best apple varieties, by a mile!) through a catalog. The next year, we found one locally. Both were bare root saplings, about 2-3 feet tall but the local one cost about 1/3 more than the one in the catalog.
However, even though the catalog tree had a year’s head start, the local one grew faster and produced fruit a year earlier than the catalog tree. By every measure, it was just a more vigorous tree.
A good nursery is a bargain
A good local nursery will have knowledgeable staff. They will give you information on what grows best in your area and how to care for your tree. Several years go we went to our favorite nursery with our hearts set on planting several maple trees. Our dream was to one day be be able to tap the trees and have our own supply of maple syrup. But the nursery owner advised against maple trees. Even though we live just 75 miles from Maplewood State Park, (a park filled with, you guessed it, beautiful maples), the trees would not grow well in our soil. He suggested basswood instead, which also produces a sap that you can turn into syrup. That’s what a good nursery will do: Help you find the best varieties and growing practices for your area.
If you want cheap and don’t care if the tree takes an extra 2-3 years to reach full maturity, look at your county soil conservation district or county extension. A lot of counties (especially here in the Midwest) encourage people to plant windbreaks and tree lines. This is to prevent wind erosion and to expand the habitat for a diverse wildlife. You may find that your county has just such a tree program. In our county, we can order bundles of five trees or bushes for $7.50. They have a wide variety of flowering, fruit- and nut-bearing trees and bushes, You can hardly beat that price. The saplings are a bit smaller than in nurseries and they are all bare root trees. But for that price, an extra year or two to maturity is no big deal.
Trees can either come bare root or balled. Trees with root balls are all leafed out, so you have a good idea of how vigorous they’ll be. The roots and all the soil surrounding the roots are either wrapped in burlap (making it all look like ball at the end of a tree) or planted in a large planter. People who want a tree that looks good from day one will prefer a balled tree. But they do tend to be more expensive and the shock of transplanting can set their growth back several weeks.
With bare root trees, the roots are, well, bare. They look like a stick. That’s because the tree is dormant, so it doesn’t need soil or water. So when you bring it home, put it in a bucket of water and let it sit overnight. This wakes the tree up and tells it that it’s time to start making a life for itself. It’s a signal to start creating new roots and branches. Once it starts taking off, there’s no stopping it. By season’s end you’ll have a nice, strong baby tree growing in your yard.
So, which should you get?
That depends on your budget, your goals and plant availability. This article will give you some good pros and cons for each.
A $10 tree needs a $100 hole
Give your new tree a good start in its new home. That’s the most important thing you can do for your tree. No matter how big your tree is, it needs a big hole. I mean a REALLY BIG hole. The general rule is to dig a hole twice as wide and half again as deep as the root ball. For bare root trees, the hole should be 2-3 feet in diameter and twice as deep as the root.
Your tree needs to establish strong root growth as quickly as he can. Digging a big hole loosens the soil and makes it easier to get those roots going.
Hold your tree so that the roots are below ground and the trunk above. Then begin filling the hole back in. The first one-third of the hole should be filled with well-rotted compost and a slow-release tree fertilizer. Then fill in the rest of the dirt.
This is a two-man job. One person needs to hold the tree in place and keep it upright and level. Meanwhile the other person starts shoveling dirt in. Hold the tree with one hand and protect the roots with your other hand. You don’t want the soil to bruise or break tender roots. Use your hands to gently work the soil around all the roots. Don’t tamp the soil! You don’t want to injure the roots or make the soil too dense for water to permeate and the roots to grow. I put a couple comfrey leaves into the hole to help stimulate root growth.
When the hole is about 1/3 filled, pour a gallon bucket of water into the hole. That will help the dirt to settle and ensure all the roots are getting watered. Pour another bucket of water in when it’s about 2/3 filled. As you finish filling in the hole, create a bit of a berm about 2-3 feet in diameter around the tree. This will help hold water and direct the rain to the tree.
Don’t stop there
If you live in an apartment or cannot plant a tree, then bring a plant into the house. Or help a friend plant a tree or donate to Arbor Day Foundation or any of the many organizations that promote tree-planting
Make your yard a shady refuge for you, future generations and the wildlife by planting plenty of trees. After all, that IS the meaning of life, right?