How to Plant a Tree Correctly

How to Plant a Tree Correctly

A newly planted tree with water retention berm.

A planted tree with water retention berm. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County

Often, Extension agents are tasked with evaluation of unhealthy plants in the landscape.  They diagnose all sorts of plant problems including those caused by disease infection, insect infiltration, or improper culture.

When evaluating trees, one problem that often comes to the surface is improper tree installation.  Although poorly installed trees may survive for 10 or 15 years after planting, they rarely thrive and often experience a slow death.

Fall is an excellent time to plant a tree in Florida.  A couple of weeks ago beautiful Nuttal Oak was planted at Bagdad Mill Site Park in Santa Rosa County, FL.  Here are 11 easy steps to follow for proper tree installation:

  1. Look around and up for wire, light poles, and buildings that may interfere with growth;
  2. Dig a shallow planting hole as wide as possible;
  3. Find the point where the top-most root emerges from the trunk;
  4. Slide the tree carefully into the planting hole;
  5. Position the point where the top-most root emerges from the trunk slightly above the landscape soil surface;
  6. Straighten the tree in the hole;
  7. Remove synthetic materials from around trunk and root ball;
  8. Slice a shovel down in to the back fill;
  9. Cover the exposed sides of the root ball with mulch and create water retention berm;
  10. Stake the tree if necessary;
  11. Come back to remove hardware.
A hole being dug for a tree to be planted.

Digging a properly sized hole for planting a tree. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County

Removing synthetic material from the root ball.

Removing synthetic material from the root ball. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County

Straightening a tree and adjusting planting height.

Straightening a tree and adjusting planting height. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida – Santa Rosa County

For more detailed information on planting trees and shrubs visit this UF/IFAS Website – “Steps to Planting a Tree”.

For more information Nuttall Oaks visit this University of Arkansas Website.

The Right Loropetalum for Your Garden

The Right Loropetalum for Your Garden

A very popular landscape shrub installed by both professionals and homeowners is Loropetalum or Chinese fringe.  This shrub offers attractive foliage and flowers along with being evergreen.
When you visit a nursery to select this plant for your landscape, realize that there are now many selections of Loropetalum available.  Learn about a few of the common selections in this recording of  ‘In the Garden’, with UF/ IFAS Extension Escambia County Horticulture Agent Beth Bolles, so that you are successful at matching the appropriate plant with your landscape needs.

Green Side Up:  Plant Properly to Avoid These Common Mistakes

Green Side Up: Plant Properly to Avoid These Common Mistakes

It is a common misconception that winter is a time of rest in the landscape, for both plants and people.  In the Panhandle, the winter months tend to be rainy and miserable, with wild weather fluctuations in between.  These conditions cause folks to think their chores are done until the weather warms up and plants begin to grow again. In reality, winter lays the foundation for the next year of growth! This is because, though most plants are dormant or have at least slowed their growth above ground, their root systems continue to develop through the cold.  This “catch-up” time when plants are not growing above ground is the ideal time to plant woody trees and shrubs so they can focus their energy on getting a root system established without having to worry about supporting shoot growth!  However, even if you plant at the proper time, several common mistakes can still torpedo your planting efforts.  I once worked for a snarky nurseryman who, when new employees would ask how he wanted trees to be planted, would answer, “Green side up, of course.”  So, remember to plant green side up and also keep the following in mind when you plant this winter!

Cutting circling roots.

  • Digging the right hole. The quickest way to resign a plant to failure before even removing it from the container is to dig a bad hole.  In order to facilitate ideal root development and allow the plant to establish as rapidly as possible, the planting hole should be 2-3 times the diameter of the rootball.  The easiest way to measure this is to set the plant were you want it and begin digging the hole around it; this step allows you to visualize the size of the hole.  Most holes that are “eyeballed” are not wide enough. A little extra digging in the beginning can make a lot of difference later.  In addition, the planting hole should be, at minimum, the same depth as the rootball.  In a perfect scenario, after planting, the top of the rootball should be a half an inch to an inch higher than the surrounding soil to accommodate for settling of the soil underneath the rootball.  This prevents the plant from sitting in a depression that water could pool in, leading to disease issues.  It can be hard to believe, but simply digging a proper hole helps ensure plant establishment and enables long-term survival!
  • Preventing Circling Roots. Often, plants are constrained in a container that is a little too small for a little too long on the floor of a nursery.  When this situation occurs, the roots of the plant do not stop growing once they reach the “wall” of the container, but rather keep going in a circular pattern around the edge of the pot.  This is a problem because, if not corrected, the roots will continue this growth pattern once in the ground, eventually strangling the plant.  However, this problem is easily corrected by severing the circling roots.  This is where gardeners often get squeamish however.   It is time to check your plant conscience at the door and know the plant will thank you later!  I like to make vertical slices, evenly spaced, around the rootball.  These slices should cut about an inch into the rootball to ensure both superficial and unseen circling roots are cut; this somewhat brutal task can be accomplished with a sharp shovel, machete, or even a heavy-duty pair of pruners.  At every cut, the previously circling root will branch, creating a nice web of new roots that will serve as anchors for the fledgling plant.
  • Backfilling Correctly. The single most asked question involving plants trees and shrubs is, “Should I backfill the hole with compost?”  The single most common answer I give in return is, “Absolutely not.”  Although it seems counterintuitive, it is almost never a good idea to backfill with a soil that is not your native soil.  There is a simple reason for this.  If a tree were planted in a hole that is backfilled with rich soil and is surrounded by our infertile, native Florida sands, why would it ever want to leave that hole?  Turns out, it does not want to leave that easy environment because it has all the nutrients it needs right there, which is a problem.  What happens when a drought, hurricane, or other stress event comes calling?  The plant will not have a wide-spreading root system for support and will suffer from lack of water or lodging from high winds.  By backfilling with your native soil, you encourage the plant’s roots to grow out and seek water and nutrients.

As you can see, there is a little more to planting than “green side up.” But, if you plant at the right time, dig the right hole, prevent circling roots, and backfill with your native soil, you will have set your newly bought tree or shrub up for success and will be able to enjoy it for many years to come!  For more information on planting and other horticultural topics, contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office and as always, happy gardening!

An Easily Preventable Tree Planting Problem

An Easily Preventable Tree Planting Problem

Trees are a landscape asset for many homeowners. When a new tree is installed in our landscapes, we can’t wait for it to mature to provide shade or landscape interest.  The heartbreak for many homeowners comes when this important part of their landscape, begins to decline five to ten years after establishment.  We often consider a pest as the cause. The common culprit is often hidden below the mulch and soil and is easily preventable.

When larger specimen trees are installed in residential and commercial landscapes, they may be delivered with materials that help hold the rootball in place.   Strapping often runs over the rootball and when trees are young is several inches away from the trunk.  Installers or homeowners often do not cut the strapping during installation.

As this tree continue to grow, the rootball straps will interfere with normal trunk development. Cutting the straps takes only a few seconds at the time of planting. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF / IFAS Extension Escambia County

Over the years, tree trunks will grow in diameter and eventually reach the strapping.  Because the strapping is still firmly in place, it can cut into a growing tree, resulting in girdling.  Although many trees try to overcome the injured area by forming new wood over and around the girdling, this is a major stress that interferes with water and food movement in the plant.  What we see is a tree that may be slower to leaf out in the spring, a thinning canopy, and twig dieback.  These symptoms may be confused with another cause since the strapping is normally hidden from view.

The crape myrtle on the right has a very thin canopy. Investigation found a severe area of girdling from strapping left uncut at planting. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF / IFAS Extension Escambia County.

If you do have a tree that exhibits the above listed symptoms, it never hurts to look at the trunk and root flare just below the mulch and soil surface. If you find strapping still in place, cut it so that it is loose.  Depending on the severity of the problem, this may not save the tree but it is worth a try on your important investment.

Tips for Transplanting

Be careful planting cucurbit transplants, as they have sensitive roots. Photo by Molly Jameson.

When I think of the end of winter and the hot temperatures that will soon be here to stay in the Florida Panhandle, I often feel a little melancholy. But the one silver lining that always picks me back up is remembering what warmer temperatures will mean in the garden. This is the start to all the fun, colorful, fruiting crops. Think of the oranges, reds, yellows, and even purples that will soon fill their vines.

As an extension agent, one of the questions I am often asked is whether to start summer vegetables from seed directly in the garden, or to start seeds in pots and transplant them later. The answer is – as is often the case – it depends.

Are you planting tomatoes, peppers, or eggplant? Well, the beginning of April is too late to start from seeds with these crops in our neck of the woods. Buy transplants! Are you growing beans, okra, or root crops? Now that we are past the risk of frost, put those seeds directly into your garden. Are you growing cucurbits, like squash, cucumbers, or melons? You have a choice. You could seed them directly, or you could start seeds in pots. What is the advantage of starting in pots, you ask? Well – this will give you the chance to pick the strongest plants and will allow you to transplant them exactly where you want them. The disadvantage? Other than the extra work, cucurbits tend to be sensitive to disturbance. Be sure to handle with care and do not over water once your seedlings have sprouted.

Transplant into the garden when the plant is about the length of its pot. Photo by Molly Jameson.

Whether you grew the seeds in pots yourself or acquired transplants elsewhere, there are certain practices you can follow to ensure your plant babies have a good start. Here are a few tips when it comes to transplanting into the garden:

What should be considered when purchasing transplants? When purchasing transplants, it is important to make sure the plant is healthy. Look for plants with strong stems, green leaves, and no signs of pest or disease damage. Ideally, the plant should not be much taller than the length of its pot, and should be about as tall as it is wide. Also, avoid vegetable plants that are already producing fruit, this is an indication they have been in their pot too long, prompting them to become stressed. When stressed, annuals often feel they need to hurry and produce seeds to carry on the next generation.

When should transplants be planted into the garden? For spring gardens, plant transplants once danger of frost has passed (late March in the Panhandle), when the transplant has had time to develop a strong root system, and when the transplant is about the length of its pot. If you are growing your seeds indoors or in a greenhouse, allow the plant to “harden-off” by placing the plants outdoors in partial shade for a few hours a day for about a week before transplanting.

What is the transplanting process?

  • First, prepare your garden site with compost and other soil amendments.
  • Water your plants very thoroughly just before planting to decrease transplant shock. The entire root system should be completely wet.
  • Dig a hole that is at least double the width of the plant’s root ball.

    Add fresh compost or worm castings to each planting hole to give your plants an extra nutrient boost. Photo by Molly Jameson.

  • Add one to two handfuls of fresh compost or worm castings to each hole. These soil amendments will improve soil health, introduce beneficial microbes, and provide a slow- release nutrient source for your growing seedlings.
  • Avoid covering any leaves or stems under the soil surface. Remove these lower leaves and stems with sharp garden clippers to minimize the size of the wound.
  • Avoid touching the stem and avoid disturbing the root ball when removing the transplant from its pot. Gently squeeze the pot to loosen the potting soil and turn the transplant sideways or upside down with the palm of your hand to gently “catch” the transplant.
  • Unless the transplant is a tomato, plant it so that the soil level is about the soil level of the transplant, making sure the plant has good structure to decrease susceptibility of falling over as it grows.
  • If transplanting a tomato, plant deeper than the soil level of the transplant, as tomatoes can grow what are called “adventitious” roots – roots that grow from their stem – that will improve overall root development.
  • Make sure to cover up all roots, and water the soil around the plant thoroughly. Continue to water deeply, keeping the soil moist but not soggy, for the next three to four days while the plant becomes established. You can then begin to switch to a normal watering pattern.
  • Always water the soil around the plant, not the plant leaves, throughout the season to decrease susceptibility to disease.

Remember: gardening is a science and an art! And just like art, there are many aspects that are open to interpretation. Have fun gardening – experiment and try new techniques. Keep a journal tracking all your gardening adventures. With time, this can become your road map to the sweetest of summer fruit.