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Column: Moment of Nature - April 27, 2018

Spring tips for healthy trees

Posted: April 26, 2018 3:03 p.m.
Updated: April 27, 2018 1:00 a.m.

For many, the allure of warm weather and blooming plants stirs us to be outside and get our hands in the dirt. If you haven’t gotten outside yet to do your spring cleaning, sprucing and planting, let me offer some tips to ensure your trees provide you with decades of enjoyment.

Tip 1

If you have trees in your yard, take a walk-about and examine each one to make note of their condition. Look at the fullness of the canopy, the color and size of the leaves, check for dead branches, any open holes, cracks or seems and broken or hanging branches. If you have tall trees, use binoculars to see the upper branches and canopy. Also look along the trunk and around the tree base. Look for fungus conks or mushrooms or separation of the soil away from the trunk, these may be indicators of root rot or structural issues. By getting to know the current condition of your trees, you’ll be better prepared to discern any trouble.

Tip 2

When adding a new tree to your landscape, know the physical characteristics of what you are buying and make sure it will fit the space you have in mind. Depending on the species, the tree may grow 25 feet tall or 65 feet tall. Large-maturing trees must not be planted near overhead utility wires and at least 20 feet away from a house, driveway or wall, as over time, it may cause above or below ground conflict. Before getting on the road for home, cover the tree canopy with a tarp, sheet, burlap, anything. This will protect the leaves from drying out as you travel, even if your destination is only a few miles away. Otherwise, you may severely damage your purchase before you even get home!

Always handle the tree by the container or root ball and not the trunk, otherwise you risk separating the roots and trunk, which may kill the tree. Dig the hole in the ground twice the diameter of the root ball; this helps aerate the soil for new root growth. Place the tree in the hole level or slightly above the root ball and backfill with original dirt (soil amendments are not generally needed) and water in as you go, this will help hydrate the soil. Be careful not to put dirt on top of the root ball as this will smother the tree.

Tip 3

Water new and old trees. As temperatures rise and flowers and leaves emerge from their winter dormancy, adequate soil moisture is critical. This allows roots to absorb and transport it to various tree parts for growth and health. If you’ve planted a tree recently, supplemental watering is critical to the tree’s survival and establishment. For new trees, apply a minimum of 2 gallons of water per 1 inch of trunk diameter weekly depending on the weather. Continue watering until the leaves shed in the fall. Using a 5-gallon bucket with two holes drilled through the bottom and placed directly on the root ball will help you regulate the quantity given. Adjust quantity accordingly during the summer. If you have an irrigation system, do not depend on it to sufficiently water your tree. Use the bucket method at least for the first year. A tree is a gazillion times bigger than a blade of grass and needs a lot more water. For mature and long-established trees, supplemental water during the course of the spring and summer is very beneficial and needed when temperatures soar into the 90s and above.

Tip 4

Mulch -- it’s so important for trees. It helps retain soil moisture needed for health and growth; helps regulate soil temperature, keeping the roots warm during the winter and not too hot during the summer; decomposes over time and as such, adds beneficial nutrients to the soil; and, lastly, helps to define the landscape and deters grass and weed germination. Apply mulch low and wide, a layer no deeper than 3 to 4 inches and as far out to the edge of the canopy is best. We mulch for root health not the trunk, so don’t pile mulch along the trunk as it encourages roots to grow up and holds moisture against the trunk which can harbor insect pests and diseases. Organic mulch (anything that will decompose) is best to use. If you have a naturalized area or want to convert some of your turf to a landscape bed or if grass won’t grow under the shade of a large tree, lawn clippings and shredded leaves can be an inexpensive but effective way to mulch as well. This is what Mother Nature does in the forest, so it must be a good thing!

Tip 5

Save time, energy and money by not using landscape fabric around trees. In my 20-plus years of arboriculture, I have not seen any benefit to plants using this stuff. Fibrous roots will grow on top of the fabric because water is more available topside than underneath. It also separates the mulch layer from the soil layer, which deters the benefits of decomposition and nutrient recycling. Plus, weeds still find a way to grow through the holes cut out for plants. Lastly, fire ants love to burrow underneath it, which is neither here nor there for the tree, but certainly can be painful for anyone working nearby. A good way to deter weed germination after planting trees or shrubs is to place sheets of newspaper on the ground, wet them down with water and then apply mulch on top. I have done this in my own landscape and found it to be highly effective. The newspaper will biodegrade over the course of the year.

Tip 6

Fertilize sparingly, if at all. Trees and plants make their own food, so it’s generally not necessary. Fertilizer is more akin to our equivalent of vitamins. It can provide the basic building blocks for growth, reproduction, defense and health. A fertilizer that contains slow-release nitrogen is best as it releases the nitrogen over time. Fertilizers with a weed-killer component should not be used on lawns if any trees are in the area. These contain a soil-activated herbicide that over time can adversely affect trees. Fertilizer must be dissolved in water before tree roots can absorb and distribute it within the tree, so it has to be watered in and always follow directions on the label. Before applying fertilizer, consider having your soil analyzed. The Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service’s Kershaw County office on DeKalb Street can provide you with a soil sample kit. For a minor fee, you will find out the soil pH and levels of macro-nutrients available for trees and plants.

By following these simple tips, you can reap the long-term benefits trees provide to our home landscapes. Please feel free to email me at with any tree questions you may have. Happy Spring!


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