When dry weather continues for an extended period, landscape trees depend on homeowners for water. According to the Texas Forestry Service, more than 5 million urban and landscape trees in Texas alone have been lost due to drought, so it’s important to take care of surviving trees and nurture replacement trees with proper watering.
The amount of water a tree needs depends on many factors, including the age and species of the tree, the time of year, weather and soil type. As a rule, newly planted and young trees require more frequent watering than older, well-established trees. But during extended periods of drought, all trees benefit from supplemental watering.
For the first several months after planting, most of a tree’s roots are still within the original root ball, with some roots beginning to grow beyond this area. The root ball and the surrounding soil should be kept evenly moist to encourage healthy root growth. After a few months, expand the watering zone to cover the entire area under the canopy. It can take two or more growing seasons for a tree to become established — for roots to venture into the soil well beyond the planting hole. It’s vital to provide supplemental moisture in those early years if nature doesn’t provide regular soaking rains. During hot, dry weather, new trees may require water as often as three times per week to ensure that the root ball doesn’t dry out.
But don’t worry – this guide is here to help you ensure that your new tree grows to become firmly rooted, stable, and healthy, starting with a few things that should happen before the tree is even planted. Follow these steps, and pretty soon, you’ll be experiencing all of the many benefits that trees provide, making your effort more than worthwhile.
How to Plant A Tree the Right Way
BE SURE THAT THE TREE IS PLANTED PROPERLY
Without the right growing conditions, a new tree won’t have a chance. Be sure that you plant the tree in the right location by asking yourself these questions:
- Will it have enough room to grow – for both height and width?
- Will the roots end up under a sidewalk, patio or roadway where they can cause damage?
- Does the location provide the right amount of light? For example, if it needs full sun, be sure it gets at least 6 hours of direct sunlight.
- Is it appropriate for our area? Link to zones map. If you choose a tree species that don’t like the cold, for instance, it probably won’t last long.
Many of the tree problems that we, as arborists, encounter stem from the wrong tree being planted in the wrong place.
After you ensure that the location really does work for your type of tree, make sure that it’s planted at the right depth.
Does it look like a straight pole sticking out of the ground, or can you see the area at the base of the trunk where it starts to get wider, just above the top of the roots? We call this the trunk flare, and it’s important that the trunk flare is above ground level. If it’s buried, the tree will have a lot of problems. (Note that in many cases, a tree bought in a container or balled and burlapped will have the trunk flare buried, so you will have to uncover it before planting.).
If you’re not sure about how to plant your tree or whether a tree has been properly planted, give us a call. We offer inspections as well as tree planting services to make it as easy as possible to add new trees to your property.
WATER, WATER, WATER (BUT NOT TOO MUCH!)
How to Water Your Newly-Planted Tree
Immediately after your tree has been planted, be sure to water it deeply every day. Watering deeply means making sure that the water reaches down to the roots; the way to achieve this is by watering slowly for a longer period of time.
Sprinklers are great for watering gardens and lawns but not for trees. A sprinkler will spray water on the trunk and the leaves, but you want a steady concentration of water to reach the roots. And unlike lawns, trees need water less frequently but in greater quantities – a sprinkler system that’s set up to keep your lawn lush and green simply won’t meet the needs of a newly-planted tree.
We recommend a drip irrigation system, a soaker hose, or even a garden hose – anything that can emit water slowly and for a long time.
Don’t water near the trunk. Instead, concentrate water in the area of the root ball and then the area around it. This will encourage the roots to reach outwards.
How Often to Water
As for your watering routine, here are some general guidelines:
- For a trunk diameter of less than 2″, water daily for two weeks, then weekly.
- For a trunk diameter of 2″ to 4″, water daily for one month, then weekly
- For anything larger than 4″, water daily for six weeks, then weekly
- Continue watering at this rate until the tree is established (usually well into the fall).
How Much Water to Use
Check the ground around your tree (under the layer of mulch) between waterings. You want it to be moist but not soaking wet.
Dig out a bit of the soil and feel it in your hands. If it blows away, it’s too dry and should be watered. If you can squeeze out water, it’s too wet and doesn’t need to be watered at that time. You want soil that holds its shape but isn’t too mushy and doesn’t turn dusty and blow away.
A tree needs 10 gallons of water per week for each inch of diameter of the tree. So, for instance, a 2-inch wide sapling will need 20 gallons of water each week.
Long and deep waterings are better than short and frequent. If you’re using a soaker hose or a slow drip system, this means at least 2 hours of watering each time.
Keep an eye on the weather. If it’s especially hot, you may need to water your new tree more often and/or provide more water. If it’s a rainy week, shut off any irrigation systems – you don’t want to overwater a tree (trees can suffocate and drown if they’re sitting in too much water!).
MULCH TO RETAIN MOISTURE AND REGULATE TEMPERATURES
You may be used to seeing trees surrounded by grass or flowers, and so you might be tempted to follow suit. Remember, though, that grass is also a plant, and it will be competing for the water, nutrients, and other resources in the area.
The best option is to remove the grass around a tree (it will make lawn mowing much easier anyway) and to put down a layer of organic mulch.
Good choices for mulch include:
- Leaf litter/leaf mulch
- Pine straw
- Wood chips
- Shredded bark
Mulch is great at retaining moisture, adding organic nutrients to the soil, and regulating the soil temperature. It also stops weeds from sprouting and ensures that you won’t accidentally injure your newly planted tree with a string trimmer or mower.
To take advantage of the many benefits of mulch, be sure that you place your mulch 3 to 4 inches away from the tree trunk. Any mulch touching your tree can severely harm it by encouraging rot and making it easier for pests to attack.
Despite what you may have seen at local parks, your mulch should never look like a volcano piled up around the tree trunk. Keep the mulch in one flat, level surface and be sure you can still see the root flare that we mentioned earlier.
Spread the mulch about 2 to 4 inches deep maximum; this is NOT a case of “more is better” (up to 6 inches can be used around trees as long as it’s not piled into a volcano).
The further out from the tree that the mulch extends, the better, as it will help to protect roots as they grow. Try to place it at least as far out as the tree’s leaves or canopy. As the tree grows, consider that sometime’s a tree’s roots can extend out two to three times farther than the canopy.
WHAT’S AT STAKE WITH STAKING
Most often, a newly planted tree won’t need to be staked. But, if for some reason it does, be sure to remove the stakes after a year (two at the most).
Stakes that are left in place too long will prevent the tree from establishing a secure root system, developing the proper form and being able to withstand winds. Plus, leaving the stakes (and/or any straps attached to it) in place can eventually kill your tree.
TO FERTILIZE OR NOT TO FERTILIZE
We recommend not fertilizing your tree for the first few years, as the roots need time to stretch out and establish themselves first. The fertilizer generally won’t help the roots those first few years.
Instead, consider organic mulch, which acts as a slow-release fertilizer. Another option is to add mycorrhizal fungi to the soil when you plant your tree, but opinions are mixed as to whether that helps or not.
A soil test and a consultation with an arborist can help you determine the best course of action for your trees when it comes to fertilization and soil amendments.
For more details about fertilizing trees, see our FAQs about tree fertilization, including when and how to fertilize, New Jersey’s fertilizer law, organic alternatives, and more.
PROCRASTINATE ON PRUNING
Let the tree grow for at least one full season before considering any corrective pruning. The tree will need all the energy it can get (from photosynthesis in the leaves) to help it develop a strong root structure.
If any branches have been damaged during the transportation and/or planting process, those can be removed right away.
SPEND TIME WITH YOUR TREE
The most important thing is to keep an eye on your new tree. As with anything that’s been newly planted, watch for insect or disease problems (which are more common when the plant is stressed
4 Common Mistakes People Make when Caring for Their Trees
Chances are, most of the yards in your neighbourhood have at least one tree. Trees are beautiful to look at, they boost your curb appeal, and they provide relief from the heat. In fact, the shade from just one tree can reduce surface temperatures by as much as 45°F, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In return for everything that our tall, leafy friends do for us, it’s important for us to help keep them healthy. Often the best way to take care of trees is to do less, not more, especially when it comes to these common mistakes.
Stop Making ‘Mulch Volcanoes’
A layer of mulch around your trees helps protect them from mower blades and prevents soil from drying out. But piling it up like a volcano around your tree traps moisture against the trunk, which can cause rot. Additionally, when mulch is too deep, it prevents tree roots from getting the oxygen they need. “Always mulch out and not up,” says Daniel S. Bauer, an arborist and president of Arbor Equity Inc. He recommends using hardwood mulch, which will slowly break down and provide some nutrients to the soil. Just keep your mulch layer to a depth of 2–3 inches.
Don’t Use Pruning Paint.
Pruning trees and shrubs promote the plants’ health but skip the pruning paint. You may have seen products that say they help seal the cuts left behind, but actually, they seal in fungi and bacteria that can cause disease. They also make it harder for trees to naturally seal off their wounds. Plus, most tree wound sealers are petroleum-based, which isn’t exactly great for living tissue. “Would you use it to treat a cut on your own skin?” asks Linda Chalker-Scott, a professor and horticulturist at Washington State University. “If the idea repels you, carry that feeling over to plant health care,” she advises.
Avoid Topping Your Trees
A too-tall tree can cause problems with electrical lines, or it might be outgrowing its space. However, reducing a tree’s size by indiscriminately lopping off large branches or topping is not the answer. This can stress out the plant enough to kill it and exposes it to disease, decay, and damage from the sun or insects. Any smaller branches that grow to fill the space left by topping are more likely to break during storms. Properly and safely pruning large trees away from power lines is best done by a trained arborist. And if a tree no longer fits the location, it’s better to remove it entirely and plant a better variety for the site, Bauer says.
Quit Staking Young Trees
Newly planted saplings occasionally need help to stand up straight, but in most cases, staking is not necessary. Trees need to move and sway in the breeze to help them grow strong roots and trunks, and lashing the trunk to a stake or wire prevents that natural movement. “When the stakes are removed (if they ever are), the lack of trunk and root development makes these trees prime candidates for breakage or blow-down,” Chalker-Scott says. If you must stake in a high-wind area, that’s okay, but set a calendar reminder to remove stakes or guy wires six months after installing. Staking too long, too high, and too tight are leading causes of tree damage.