Top 5 mistakes made by first time tree planters

Note:  I’m skipping the most obvious and egregious of tree planting errors (not using Tree Tubes!).  I’m taking it for granted that if you’re visiting this site you know better!

1) Planting more than you can tend properly (a.k.a. biting off more than you can chew).  This is a biggie.  A lot of this post – and what I tell customers over the phone – falls under the heading “don’t re-invent the wheel.”  Here’s the planting trajectory of many of my customers.

a) Reach a time of life with land, a bit of time and some resources to plant trees.

b) Plant as many trees as they can afford.

c) Get behind on weed control, get zapped by drought, and get hammered by deer browse.

d) Get severely frustrated.  Sadly (but understandably) some give up at this point.

e) Re-group / Discover tree tubes / Pledge to plant fewer trees per year but give them more time and attention.

f) Success!

g) Repeat with more trees the following year.

I have heard hundreds of customers say, “I planted 5,000 trees one year, but none of them made it.  Now I plant 200 per year at most, and make sure they all make it.”  This is a much more rewarding – and much lower stress – way to go.  And you’ll end up with a lot more successfully established trees in the long run.

So, take your initial planting plan.  Cut it in half.  Then cut it in half again.  Set aside some of the money you had planned to spend on trees, and instead spend it on tree tubes, sprayers/herbicides, and other tools for caring for your trees.

Start small.  Plant a small number of trees one year, and develop a “recipe” – a system – for success (don’t define success as “survival”; define success as “growing like gangbusters”).  Then gradually increase the number of trees you plant each year as you develop more efficient ways to apply your recipe for success.

Rule of thumb:  Don’t plant any more trees in spring than you can spray and/or mow around on one weekend day.

2) Planting the wrong species for the site.  The sports analogy here is “taking what the defense gives you.”  I see many landowners (thankfully fewer than there used to be) who decide they want to plant a certain type of tree, regardless of the fact that the species is not well suited for the soil or local climate.  The wishful thinking here is that the tree planter can compensate for the poor match been the chosen species and the site through fastidious attention to other aspects of tree establishment (site preparation, weed control, fertilization, etc.)  You can’t.  The one thing you can never overcome is a bad match between the requirements of the tree species (soil pH, tolerance of drought/wet, cold hardiness, etc.) and the characteristics of the site.

A prime example of this is black walnut.  Black walnut is highly prized for its beauty and high timber value.  But is has exacting needs in terms of soil, and when planted in a soil that doesn’t meet those needs it grows poorly no matter how hard the tree planter works.

Let the site tell you what to plant.  Plant trees – native or not (that’s a whole ‘nuther topic for another day – but suffice to say that in these days of disturbed sites and soils sometimes a non-native tree is a better fit for a particular site than natives that are suited for what the soil used to be.) that will thrive on your site.  Trust me, you will be a lot happier with thriving trees of your second or third choice species than perennially struggling trees of your first choice species.

3) Poor pre-planting care of seedlings.  Too many seedlings – especially bare root seedings – end up DOP (Dead On Planting).  Exposing the roots to air, wind and heat – even for a brief time – can kill or severely weaken a bare root seedling.  Keep the roots cool and damp right up until the minute the seedling gets planted.

4) Improper planting.  This usually falls into two categories:  Incorrect planting depth and bending/twisting roots to fit the planting hole.  Let’s take them one at a time.

For potted seedlings planting to the correct depth is easy:  Just match the soil line of the pot with the soil line of the ground.  Planting bare root seedlings to the proper depth requires a bit more care, but it’s not hard.  You can see a change in coloration between the roots and the top of the tree that marks the level of the ground line when the tree was grown in the nursery.  This is known as the root collar.  The root collar – the line of demarcation between the stem and roots of the seedling – should be level with the ground line when you plant.

Planting seedlings too deep buries part of the stem adapted to be above ground and makes it harder for roots to absorb precious surface moisture.  Planting too shallow exposes part of the root system to air and sun, which is never a good thing.

Now for bending, twisting roots:  Never, ever bend roots to fit the planting hole.  I’m a huge fan of planting with a shovel to make a hole large enough to fan our the roots of bare root seedlings, as compared to using a planting bar or machine planting.  These other methods can be very successful, but increase the risk/temptation to bend roots in order to fit the planting hole.

So what do you do when the roots of your seedlings don’t fit the holes you’ve dug or trenched?  You prune.  When planting, always keep an extremely sharp set of pruning shears in a holster on your belt.  It is much, much better to cleanly prune a root than to bend it to fit the hole.  Pruned roots will re-sprout multiple roots from that point.  Bent roots will… stay bent bent and grow bent, and can cause problems years down the road (if a tree’s roots are bent in a circling pattern the tree can literally strangle itself as those roots grow in circumference, and bent roots – a.k.a. J-roots – also compress other roots inhibiting the absorption and flow of nutrients – and both weaken the anchoring structure of the tree).

With the roots of bare root seedlings it’s always better to prune than to bend.

5) Insufficient weed/brush control.  It is a fundamental, immutable law of tree planting:  Each patch of ground is capable of producing on fixed, finite amount of green biomass. Either that growth potential gets channeled into your trees, or it gets taken be grass and weeds.

Trees cannot out-compete grass and other weeds for soil nutrients and moisture.  Trees evolved other methods for beating grass:  Fire, shade, and – in some cases – toxins emitted from the roots that have a herbicidal effect on other plants (such as black walnuts).  Fire is not usually an option as a management tool, due to proximity to homes or risk of spread.  And true, grass and most weeds don’t grow well in shade giving trees a chance to get started, but trees don’t thrive in shade either; many species can survive in shade staying knee or waist high for years or decades waiting for time, lightening or a logger to create an opening and expose it to sunlight, but they don’t thrive in shade.  And even trees like black walnut which emit chemicals which inhibit competition don’t start doing that effectively until they are well established.

So it’s up to us as tree planters to give trees the weed-free space they need to grow – so that your trees get all of the light, nutrients and water the site has to offer.  And that means doing weed control.

This raises a question:  Is mowing weed control?  Not really.  Yes, it helps prevent weeds and grass from blocking sunlight and shading your trees.  Yes, it helps reduce rodent habitat.  So those that extent it is definitely helpful.  However, mowing does nothing to reduce the below-ground competition for moisture and nutrients.  In fact, the growth of many grasses is stimulated by mowing (think of your yard), and become fiercer competitors for water and nutrients after mowing.

Weed control means killing weeds, either by use of herbicides (and Roundup continues to be the best all-around non-selective systemic out there – not to mention one with very low toxicity), manual or mechanical cultivation, use of a weed mat or mulch film, or generous application of organic mulch (note – “generous” does not equal “mountainous”).

Weed control is so critical we will spend an upcoming post looking at strategies and methods.

Of course tree tubes make weed control 376% easier by allowing you to quickly locate your trees, kill the weeds around them without damaging your trees, and enabling your trees to take optimal advantage of their increased share of the site’s resources!

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