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Soil preparation: the key to healthy tree planting

"April showers bring May flowers." Now there's a well-know saying that's hard to refute.

However, there can be too much of a good thing, and when water isn't draining sufficiently, your plants can rot or 'drown.' Several readers have contacted me recently about poor drainage problems and this motivated me to think about preparing the soil so that new plants will have the optimum balance of water and nutrients as they grow.

For instance, trees look sturdy and solid when they're mature, but they can be very vulnerable when they are young. The condition of the soil in which you plant your young trees can be the determining factor in whether they thrive and grow ... or whither and die.

Firstly, a quick reminder of the three forms in which you are most likely to acquire your new trees:


This is the most popular and economical way for most people to get new young trees. If you're not going to plant your bare-root trees immediately, keep them cool and shaded and loosely wrapped at the root end in some lightly moistened material such as sphagnum or shredded wood.

Balled-and-burlapped (B&B)

I remember visiting a guitarist friend and picking up his prized, rare Stratocaster by the neck. "Never, ever do that!" he scolded me. "Always pick it up by the body!" Good advice to tree buyers, too. Always lift B&B trees by the soil ball, not by the delicate trunk!


This form is more usually used for shrubs rather than trees, but I'll mention here for one reason: the roots of container-grown plants can become "pot-bound" creating a tight tangle than encircles the root ball and can inhibit future growth. Although this sounds counter-productive, you will need to take a sharp knife and make 4 or 5 cuts, from top to bottom, all around the root ball immediately before planting.

At this point I want to recommend two excellent web sites. If you're like me, you find it helpful to follow sketches and diagrams in situations like this, and both sites contain many clear and easy-to-follow illustrations as well as plenty of useful information.

"How to Plant Trees and Shrubs" (Colorado State University Cooperative Extension)http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/garden/07417.html

"Planting Trees and Shrubs" (North Dakota State University Extension Service) http://www.ext.nodak.edu/extpubs/plantsci/trees/h531w.htm

You can click on direct links to both these resources when you go to my web site www.landsteward.org and find this column under "The Plant Man" heading. You can also search through all previous columns and other articles as well as hundreds of links to other useful resources for gardeners and landscapers.

New trees need well-drained soil if they are to flourish. Poorly drained soil or soil that is mainly clay will be low in oxygen which the tree roots need for healthy growth. If you're living in a relatively new house (particularly in a development) it's unlikely that the contractor spent the time or the money to do much more than lay sod (if that) on your landscape.

The only real solution for badly drained, clay soil is a costly one: dig up the entire area and install 4" agricultural "tiles" before adding a lot of quality top soil and grading. Yes, I know: you're unlikely to do that. The Colorado State University site offers an alternative: incorporate organic matter - such as well-rotted barnyard manure or decomposed compost - as deeply as possible to the soil before planting. Because of this "extra" material, you'll need to make each hole wider and deeper than you would when planting in naturally well drained soil.

When planting bare-root, it's important that the "crown" area of the tree is about two inches above the surrounding ground level to allow for settling of soil and roots.

As for B&B trees, place the plant into the hole and remove all the netting, wiring, etc, from the top and sides. Remove the burlap on the top two-thirds of the root ball and remove any string or twine from the top of the root ball or around the trunk before backfilling with soil.

Avoid the temptation to "treat" your tree to frequent light waterings! The tree won't need to be re-watered until the soil feels dry at a depth of about 4" or so. Add about 3" or 4" of a quality mulch, such as bark chunks or wood chips, around the trunks, but don't use polyethylene sheeting as this will exclude essential air exchange to the roots.

Again, the two web sites I mentioned will be of enormous assistance to you when planting new trees, and I'm happy to help you with problems you're having if you care to drop me a line.

The Plant Man is here to help. Send you questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to [email protected] and for resources and additional information, including archived Plant Man columns, visit www.landsteward.org where you can also subscribe to Steve's free e-mailed newsletter.

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