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Illinois Country Living

David Robson Extension Educator, Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois

Yard & Garden

How to Plant Trees and Shrubs
Early spring is the second best time to plant

While spring isn’t the ideal time for planting most trees and shrubs (that’s autumn), it’s the second best time. Early spring is better than later spring, but even if planted before June, success can be high.

Planting is similar to raising a kid, though there are some differences. Trees and shrubs seldom backtalk, get sick in the middle of the night and don’t leave after 18 years. Yes, I know the comments you’re making about the last attribute.

No one would consider letting a child raise itself after just a couple of months. We tend to feed and water the child until it’s about 2 years old, and the same thing should apply to our woody plants. Trees and shrubs will adjust with minimal care, but with a little more care, they develop into better specimens.

You can’t choose the children you’re blessed with, but with trees and shrubs you can start by choosing a good specimen. Just because the plant is on sale doesn’t make it something you would want in your yard. You could offer me all the silver maples and ash trees in the state, free of cost, and I still wouldn’t take them. Silver maples are good for quick fast growth, but are weak-wooded in the long run. Ash trees have the potential for too many problems including the Emerald Ash borer.

Fortunately, you can kill a living tree or shrub without legal repercussions, as long as it’s on your property. Lightning won’t smite you. So, if you make a mistake and plant something, such as a willow or any of its fast growing relatives like the Austree, you can remove them in 20 years.

But think – you’d have 20 years of growth on a good specimen.

Choose the right species for the right location. Try and imagine the tree 20 or 30 years from now. Will it be too close to power lines, other trees or your house?

These days you can find trees and shrubs at just about any type of store including gas stations. Again, the price may be tempting, and the type of tree may be desirable, but if the specimen looks like it’s been run over, bent, stepped on, and drug behind a tractor, you don’t want it.

Look over the plant carefully. This includes the roots as well as the top.

Trees should have a single leader. That means one stem going straight up. All too often, you’ll find specimens with two or more leaders. In the production nursery, they prune the plants to control height and encourage branching. Unfortunately, that usually means two or more tops.

While you may think you’re getting more for your money, you’re not. In fact, you’ll end up with a plant that grows fast, and then breaks in half during an ice, snow, rain or windstorm. Even if the tree is the hardest sugar maple or white oak, you can still end up with split trunks.

If you have no other choice, fortify yourself with whatever works for you, and cut one of the tops out of the tree. The tree may look slightly misshapen, but it will heal and branches will start growing in on that side.

Cut smoothly and at an angle away from the other leader. Sure, there will be a slight crookedness to the stem, but over the next 10 years, you won’t see it. Can’t do it yourself? Ask the nursery or garden center owner to do it.

Branches, or scaffolds, should be in all directions. If you looked at the tree from the top, it should be slightly circular with a single leader

Carefully lift the plant out of the pot. The roots should be white and not dark colored. Hopefully, they won’t be circling the pot. If both conditions exist, avoid the plant. Otherwise, you’re starting from scratch.

Mulch the plant with no more than two to four inches of wood chips or bark. The standard line is “out to the drip line of the tree.” Plants respond better to at least a five to six foot diameter. If the drip line is wider, that’s even better. Keep the bark away from the trunk.

Water your tree thoroughly throughout the summer and next year. We might get enough rain; we might not. Water slowly so it soaks in, but don’t over-water. Once every week or two should be enough. Don’t automatically assume the tree is well rooted after just one season. Check the soil regularly for soil moisture.

And if all goes well, your “woody” children will live as long as your true ones.


More Information:

David Robson is an Extension Educator, Horticulture, at the Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois Extension, P.O. Box 8199, Springfield, IL 62791. Telephone: 217-782-6515.


© 2008 Illinois Country Living Magazine.
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