Victoria County Master Gardener Association
Ground rules and tools for November
  Tree roots thrive in fall's cooler temperatures
November 3, 2005

Victoria County Master Gardener

Today's article will once again address a topic requested from readers. This topic is one that naturally "falls" in the month of November. First I will discuss planting trees. And then I will cover some additional tips for trees for this month of Thanksgiving.

Trees are a beautiful creation in our landscapes; some are quite majestic-looking in their overall shape, adding to the appeal of property. Trees are an investment and add to the cost of our landscaping efforts. When trees are properly managed and maintained, they will grow into those beautiful creations that can be enjoyed for generations to come.

Fall is a great time to plant a tree. Fall follows the heat of summer and precedes cool winters. Trees use this to their advantage because their roots can grow in 40-degree temperatures and above, and this usually occurs all winter long in Victoria. During this time, the tree can develop and establish a root system. Once established, the tree will be able to endure the spring and summer heat. This time also allows for the balled and burlapped roots to recover from transplant shock before the spring begins. All bare root plants should be planted when they are completely dormant.

Good planning helps the success rate of the tree. Questions you need to ask are: Do you want the tree for privacy or shade? What size will it be in five years? What are the maximum growth height, drainage characteristics, soil type recommended and the availability of water in your yard? Also keep in mind the size of your house. Is it two stories or one? Short trees look better with a one story and taller trees look better with a two-story house. The tree should be placed in the right environment, adding to its capability to grow for you in its natural condition.

One of the first recommendations in planting a tree is a soil test. It will reveal what nutrients are missing in the environment of your yard. Knowing this and planting the tree correctly will help it to be more tolerant of weather conditions and require less management in the years to come.

If you are preparing to plant a ball and burlap tree or container tree, soak the root system in water. Next, loosen the roots and spread them out once in the hole. Preparing the hole can make or break a tree. Dig the hole so it is twice as wide in diameter as the root ball. The hole depth should be the height of the root ball and no more. This depth should allow the root ball to rest on a solid soil foundation.

When planting, do not hold a tree by its trunk - but by the ball. Allow the tree to sit slightly above the level of the surrounding soil. Don't be tempted if the tree is tall or top heavy to plant the root ball low, thinking this will help stabilize the tree. It will actually kill the tree because of poor drainage. Remove the container, plastic or excess string, and place the root ball in the hole. Back fill the hole using the soil that was dug out. What came out of that hole must now go back in, preferably in the same order. Firm the soil around the tree, then water. If the root ball and planting hole are large, filling in about halfway with the subsoil, watering in, and then adding the topsoil plus additional water may be advantageous - versus doing it all in one step. Watering helps to settle the soil and eliminate air pockets that can form.

To increase the survivability of the tree, water thoroughly every seven to 10 days if needed to maintain a moist, but not wet, soil. If the soil is watered too often, you will begin to see root rot and a dying tree.

Fertilizing a newly planted tree is not recommended. Fertilize in the spring if the tree shows progressive growth. Use what the soil test recommends. Heavy application of fertilizer can be harmful, causing the root system to burn and die.

Prune the tree to remove unnecessary limbs and to help it adjust to the loss of roots during the digging and filling. Bare-rooted trees should be pruned by 40 to 60 percent. Container-grown trees can be pruned to shape the tree.

Stakes add support once trees are transplanted, especially if the area is windy. Stake the tree for its first year only, or until the roots are established. Drive one stake on each side of the tree, running wire through a piece of old garden hose and wrapping it loosely around the trunk. Lack of follow-up management of the wires and hose around the tree can cause girdling which can lead to severe trunk and limb problems. The tree stakes also serve as a barrier to mechanical equipment injury.

The last bit of work to be done is mulching the soil around the tree. This helps to control grass and weeds and conserve soil moisture. It also eliminates trunk injury when mowing or weed-eating in the area. When mulching, apply a layer of 2 to 3 inches around the planted tree in a diameter of preferably 6 to 8 feet. Excess mulch will keep it too wet and cause the roots to grow shallow, resulting in root problems rising above ground 15 years later. Also, keep the mulch about 3 inches away from the trunk of the tree.

Other tree tips for November

Annually mulch or re-mulch young trees with a 2-inch layer of mulch. Watch for the datana caterpillars, particularly on live oak trees in the fall. Treat them with any of the Bt products, intrepid, spinosad or other products like malathion or carbaryl.

If you plant fruit trees in January when bare root trees become available, they cannot stand poor drainage. In the Victoria area, it is best to build up an 8- to 12-foot area at least 6 inches above grade in November so it is settled and ready to plant in January. If you have a raised bed ready for planting, you may even kill the grass now for an added jump. Now is also the opportune time to plan and order varieties of fruit and nut trees from local nurseries to insure they have the varieties you want.

Lastly, don't get in a hurry to prune woody plants. Late December through February is usually the best time to prune them.

Next week's article will focus on small varieties of trees recommended for the landscape.