January to February is the ideal time to plant trees. During dormancy, all the energy in a tree is in the root system. They will establish very quickly. In the spring, they will be ready to grow leaves. Planting and establishing trees is all about managing air and moisture in the soil. The exception is palms. They are not technically trees and should only be planted in the late spring and summer. Three of the most common causes of poor plant establishment or tree death are planting too deep, under watering, and over watering. If appropriate trees are planted at the right depth and they are irrigated properly, the trees will thrive for years to come. As simple as this sounds, problems often arise that lead to poor establishment or plant failure.
Following ten critical steps can ensure proper tree planting:
1. Look up for wires and lights. Make sure that the tree species’ mature size will not interfere with any utility lines.
2. Find the topmost root and treat root defects. After removing the pot from the tree, remove all excess soil on the top of the root ball, until a root that is similar in diameter to the lower branches is located. That is the topmost root. Look for any roots that encircle the rootball, particularly close to the trunk. Remove any roots that will strangle the trunk. Cut all encircling roots at the point they turn to encourage root branching. Then, rough up or shave off all the roots on the perimeter of the rootball. If the tree is balled and burlapped, use a metal skewer to locate the depth of the topmost root.
3. Dig shallow and wide hole. Using the corrected rootball as a gauge, dig the hole slightly less shallow that the rootball. Loosen the top six inches of soil around the entire rootball.
4. Carefully place tree in hole. Lower the tree into the hole slowly.
5. Position top root 1-2 inches above landscape soil. Make sure that the rootball is above the surrounding soil grade. If balled and burlapped, the nylon straps, metal pins, burlap on top of the rootball, and wire basket above the grade will need to be removed.
6. Straighten tree. Check the tree from two directions at 90% angles from each other.
7. Add and firm backfill soil. Tamp soil with fingers, not feet. Do not stomp on the soil. It will compact the soil and reduce the oxygen to the roots.
8. Add mulch. Apply a 2–3-inch layer of natural mulch out to the perimeter of the trees branches, or beyond if possible. However, there should be 1 inch or less mulch on top of the rootball. Do not allow mulch to touch the trunk.
9. Stake and prune if needed. If there is a strong steady wind, staking is necessary. Otherwise, don’t stake. Make sure to do all structural pruning is done at planting time. Establish a central leader and remove crossing branches. But do not remove the lower branches. Just reduce the length. The tree needs to bring food to the lower portion of the trunk to increase the diameter.
10. Water the tree. Don’t walk away until the tree has been watered. Apply at least ½ gallon. The tree will need to be watered twice a week for 20-30 weeks. The larger the tree, the more water needed at each event. However, if the water doesn’t perk in within a few minutes, reduce the amount being applied. Overwatering can be as harmful as underwatering.
There are some key practices that are necessary to make sure your trees and shrubs establish and thrive in your landscape. Learn a few pointers from UF IFAS Extension Escambia County to promote healthy establishment after correct plant installation. Learn about installing shrubs with the UF IFAS publication Establishing Shrubs in the Florida Landscape.
One big goal of establishing a home lawn and landscape is to enjoy an attractive setting for family and friends, while also helping manage healthy soils and plants. Soil compaction at these sites can cause multiple problems for quality plants establishment and growth. Soil is an incredibly important resource creating the foundation for plants and water absorption.
Photo courtesy: Stephen Greer, UF IFAS
Soils are composed of many different things, including minerals. In Florida, these minerals often include sand of differing sizes and clay in the northern area of the counties in the panhandle of Florida. Soil is also composed of organic matter, nutrients, microorganisms and others. When soil compacts, the air spaces between the sand or clay are compressed, reducing the space between the mineral particles. This can occur anytime during the landscape and lawn construction phase or during long term maintenance of the area with equipment that could include tractors, mowers, and trucks.
What can be done to reduce soil compaction? There are steps that can be taken to help reduce this serious situation. Make a plan on how to best approach a given land area with the equipment needed to accomplish the landscape of your dreams. Where should heavy equipment travel and how much impact they will have to the soils, trees, and other plants already existing and others to be planted? At times heavy plywood may be needed to distribute the tire weight load over a larger area, reducing soil compaction by a tire directly on the soil. Once the big equipment use is complete, look at ways to reduce the areas that were compacted. Incorporating organic matter such as compost, pine bark, mulch, and others by tilling the soil and mixing it with the existing soil can help. Anytime the soil provides improved air space, root will better grow and penetrate larger areas of the soil and plants will be healthier.
Even light foot traffic over the same area over and over will slowly compact soils. Take a look at golf course at the end of cart paths or during a tournament with people walking over the same areas. The grass is damaged from the leaves at the surface to the roots below. Plugging these areas or possibly tilling and reestablishing these sites to reduce the compacted soils may be necessary.
Photo courtesy: Stephen Greer, UF IFAS
Water absorption is another area to plan for, as heavy rains do occur in Florida. Having landscapes and lawns that are properly managed allow increased water infiltration into the soil is critically important. Water runoff from the site is reduced or at least slowed to allow the nutrient from fertilizers used for the plant to have more time to be absorbed into the soil and taken up by the plants. This reduces the opportunity for nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients to enter water areas such as ponds, creeks, lagoons, rivers and bays. Even if you are miles from an open water source, movement of water runoff can enter ditches and work their way to these open water areas, ultimately impacting drinking water, wildlife, and unwanted aquatic plant growth.
Plan ahead and talk with experts that can help with developing a plan. Contact your local Extension office for assistance!
Need tips on planting and caring for trees? The primary focus in care of your newly planted tree is root development. It takes several months for roots to establish and newly planted trees and shrubs do not have a very strong root system. Start by digging the hole in a popcorn bowl shape. Once planted, backfill around the root system, but be careful not to compact the soil as this will hinder root growth. Be sure to keep the topmost area of the root ball exposed, about one to two inches. A layer of mulch will be applied here.
Frequent watering is much needed, especially if you are planting in the summer. Water thoroughly, so that water percolates below the root system. Shallow watering promotes surface root growth, which will make the plant more susceptible to stress during a drought. Concentrate some of the water in a diameter pattern a few feet from the trunk. This will cause the root system to grow towards the water, and thus better establish the root system and anchor the tree.
Figure: A Traditional Staking Option. Credit: Edward F. Gilman, UF/IFAS Extension.
Mulch is important in the conservation of soil moisture. Pine needles, bark, wood chips, and other organic materials make a great mulch. A three inch layer of mulch will usually suffice. It’s important to keep the mulch a few inches from the trunk as mulching too close to the tree trunk can cause rot.
You should always prune the bare roots of trees during planting. These exposed roots in containers can be damaged in shipping and removing some of the roots will help trigger growth. Pruning some of the top foliage can also reduce the amount of water needed for the plant to establish, as well. Trees and shrubs grown and shipped in burlap or containers usually need very little pruning.
Newly planted trees often have a difficult time establishing if the root system cannot be held in place. Strong winds and rain can cause the plant to tip over. Avoid this by staking the plant for temporary support. A good rule of thumb to determine staking need is if the trunk diameter measures three inches or less, it probably needs some support! Tie the stake to the plant every six inches from the top. However, only tie the trunk at one spot. Don’t tie too tightly so that the tree has no flexibility. This will stunt the growth of the tree.
Following these tips will help ensure your tree becomes well established in your landscape. For more information please contact your local county extension office.
National Arbor Day is April 30 and although we celebrate Florida Arbor Day in January you may find yourself planting trees right now as Spring Fever sets in. It is a little easier on the tree and the gardener caring for it to plant in the winter, but you can plant year-round if you implement proper care to ensure good establishment.
The most common problems with trees we see at our help desk are related to incorrect installation and establishment. Number one is incorrect planting depth and number two is incorrect watering during establishment. This article will cover a few pitfalls to avoid so that whenever you plant your tree you will increase your likelihood of success!
It is important that tree roots are not too deep so that they can adequately access both water and oxygen needed for survival and root generation. A good rule of thumb is to plant new trees with 10% of the root ball above the natural grade. Also check to be sure the root flare is exposed in trees that have this feature. This may require removing some soil from the top of the root ball as it came from the nursery.
A few common mistakes that lead to incorrect planting depth are listed below:
Leaving burlap and straps on the top of root balls of balled-and-burlap (B&B) trees
Piling soil on top of the root ball
Adding mulch to the root ball
Laying sod on top of root ball
Planting on a slope where soil can erode onto the root ball
Planting level with grade – trees settle and bark mixtures decompose which cause the tree to become deeper than originally planting
Creating a bed with added soil around trees (this is more common on mature trees and should be avoided)
When planting a tree, measure height and width of the corrected root ball. Dig the hole 90% as deep as the height and 125-150% as wide as the root ball. There is no need to add fertilizer or amendments to the hole, simply plant into the native soil and water appropriately.
Watering Until Tree is Established
The establishment period is the time it takes for a plant to create enough functional roots to adequately uptake water and nutrients needed to survive with little to no supplemental irrigation. In general, smaller/younger plants establish more quickly than larger ones so there are benefits to starting small when choosing trees.
Soil texture, rainfall, time of year, and tree species will factor into how long it takes for a tree to become established but there are a few guidelines to help you plan. Irrigate 2-5 gallons of water per inch trunk caliper during establishment period. Hint- your turfgrass irrigation output is not sufficient for optimum tree root growth. The chart below offers a range of irrigation frequency based on size of tree at installation and whether your goal is for fast growth or just enough to survive.
Size of Nursery Stock
Irrigation Schedule for Vigor
Irrigation Schedule for Survival
Less than 2” trunk caliper
Daily: 2 weeks
Every other day: 2 months
Weekly: Until established
Twice weekly for 2-3 months
2-4-inch trunk caliper
Daily: 1 month
Every other day: 3 months
Weekly: Until established
Twice weekly for 3-4 months
Gilman and Sadowski. “Planting and Establishing Trees.” This document is ENG 1061, one of the Urban Forest Hurricane Recovery Program series of the School of Forest Resources and Conservation and the Environmental Horticulture Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date September 2007. Reviewed February https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/EP/EP31400.pdf
Call 811 before you dig. No one wants a weekend project to be the cause of internet, phone and cable outages. Worse yet, what if someone gets hurt from contact with natural gas or electrical lines? That’s why it is so important to have buried utilities in the yard located and marked before digging. Sunshine 811 coordinates each individual company to clearly mark where the service lines are located. Homeowners are required by law to contact 811 three days before any soil removal is done. The service is free.
Have information prepared before making the request. Describe the work to be performed (e.g. fence install, landscaping, irrigation install), including the type of equipment that will be used. Specify the exact location on the property and how long the work will continue. Finally, provide all the contact information (e.g. name, phone number, e-mail), should there be any additional questions.
Call 811 or request a single address ticket online. Receive a ticket number and wait two full business days, not counting weekends or holidays. Then contact 811 again. Make sure that all the utilities have responded in the Positive Response System (PRS). Sometimes that may mean that the company doesn’t have anything to make in the area.
If there are utility lines running through the yard, they will be marked with specifically colored paints or flags. Red is used for electrical lines, orange indicates communication lines, yellow means gas, blue is used for potable water, purple is reclaimed water, and green indicates sewer lines. White lines may be used to outline digging areas and pink are temporary survey marks. This is the APWA Uniform Color Code.
Every effort is made to locate the lines as accurately as possible. But, the safest thing to do is hand dig to expose the utility line before using any mechanized equipment. Lines can vary up to 24” from the marked line and depths can be less than 5”. Remember there may be access lines running through the property even if that service isn’t utilized at that address.