Day 6 2017 STdT: Plant a tree 101 – six easy steps

Riding through the rolling hills of horse and wine country in Virginia, one thing is ever present — trees. The landscape hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years. In some spaces, where horses roam expansive farms, they dot the landscape, in others, they are thick and thriving in forests. As we ride through the countryside for the 25th-anniversary STIHL Tour des Trees, it is the trees that are our focus. It’s nice to be on the trails of our forefathers and feel like we see what they once saw in days past.

I find myself riding by big trees this week and wondering – how long have you been here? If only trees could talk.

It’s the topic of conversation with my fellow rider Tom Armstrong who is local to the area. On the road, he serves as our de-facto tour guide sharing stories about the land-owners, the people who have been in the area for a very long time and the property that’s been passed from generation to generation. The Blue Ridge Mountains are off in the distance, another point of interest, ever present, as we pedal a portion of our 91 miles on this day.

And the miles are just clicking by — the trails are smooth but punctuated by steep climbs, the wind and conditions are perfect. We’re in the zone.

As a professor and chair of the Horticulture department at Iowa State University, much of my focus is on trees. I am inspired by this trip to provide some advice for those who want to plant and grow trees. With the goal of ensuring they can enjoy them, like the ones we enjoy seeing along our journey. The point being, if you don’t get it right from the beginning, you’ll have problems down the road.

Here’s tree planting 101 in six basic steps:

1. Choose a tree that will fit the site spatially and thrive in given conditions. Things to consider: sun, shade, moisture and soil pH.
2. The hole is extremely important — consider the size of the root system — the hole must be at minimum, two times the width of the root bulb and no deeper than the depth of the root mass. For poorly drained soil, prepare a shallower hole.
3. Use soil from the hole as back-fill if possible. If you are working with poor soil, add a good organic compost.
4. Water is the magic elixir. The tree is depending on the root mass to survive. So, you must keep your newly planted tree well-watered — check it daily. Be sure you’re getting water to the root mass, so it can take hold and thrive.
5. One way to moderate the highs and lows in temperature and moisture for your newly planted tree is to apply a layer of organic mulch (2-3 inches deep) and extending out to the tips of the branches.
6. Once the tree is established, don’t forget about it. In years two, three and four — your tree may still need watering if conditions are challenging, it’s also nice to extend the mulch area as the tree grows. Be sure it reaches out to the edge of the canopy.

Here’s the bottom line: planting a tree is not rocket science, but there is some science to it and finesse. It’s imperative to get it right the first time because there is no prescription to remedy what ails a tree due to mistakes made on the day of planting. Happy planting and happy trails!

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