"If a man is planting a tree, and someone comes to him and says the Messiah has come, let him finish planting the tree and then meet the Messiah." This was said by biblical scholar Johanan ben Zakkai around 70 A.D. Since tree planting is considered, even biblically, as such a significant occurrence, we should take the opportunity this fall to practice what's preached.
This is the perfect season for planting these tall, woody, deciduous plants. Here are some tips for creating hospitable hardwood environments.
The first key to preparing your site is to dig wider. Feeder roots spread some distance from the trunk horizontally, but even the largest hardwoods grow in only the top two feet of soil.
* Amending the soil. To ready the site for growing a shade tree, lay a two- to three-inch layer of compost or leaf mold over the soil four to eight feet in diameter, if you have the room. Then rototill the area to 12 inches deep, or the depth of the root ball. This will dig the compost into the soil, turning it into a well-drained medium.
Having soil amended to this depth will allow the tree's roots to grow to a depth of 12 to 18 inches and not run across the surface of the soil as they mature. The major reason roots stick out of the ground is because of little to no site preparation at planting time. In those cases, the surface is the only place for the roots to find a moist, aerated, well-drained environment.
* Preparing the hole. Dig the planting hole; because you have lightened the soil in the entire area, you can disregard the usual rule of thumb about making the hole much larger than the root ball. Fill the hole about a third of the way, tamping it down enough to support the root ball. Place the ball so that the tree's root collar is several inches above the existing soil line. If the hole is too deep, put more soil back in, again packing it to support the root ball so it doesn't settle.
The root collar is at the base of the bark on a tree. It's where you can see a noticeable flare in the trunk. The roots grow horizontally underground from this point. The flare must be above ground.
* Placing the tree. Position the tree so that the best side is facing the way you want it to. Be sure the tree is perpendicular and resting on firm soil. Then remove the ropes and pull back and fold down the burlap from the top third or more of the ball. If the tree was in an open wire basket, leave it on.
You can also get large trees in containers, up to a 25-gallon size. When you plant a container tree, remove it completely from the pot and make vertical cuts down the roots in three or four places around the ball. This will encourage it to grow into the surrounding soil.
You can get bare-root trees too. They don't come in as mature a size as balled and burlapped, but the price is right. You typically find them mail-order. Bare-root trees should be planted by spreading them over a mound of amended soil tamped firm with your shovel or other tool. The mound of soil should be high enough so that its root collar will be above ground.
* Filling in the hole. Back-fill the rest of the hole using the amended soil you removed. Using the native soil helps trees adapt to their new surroundings. Form a basin around the edge of the root ball to catch rain and irrigation water.
Don't mulch against the flare in the trunk or let more than an inch or two of soil pile against it, or it could rot the bark, increase susceptibility to disease and insects and interrupt nutrient circulation.
Water the tree immediately, soaking it thoroughly to make sure the soil has settled completely around the roots. Keep it watered weekly if there's no rain. Mulch the tree with two inches of a hardwood bark or leaf mold that will hold moisture and protect the roots through winter.
* Final touches. Do little pruning on newly planted trees. Prune no more than 15 percent of the branches at the time of planting.
Don't stake or wire trees into place unless necessary. Research shows that they get established better if their tops are allowed to blow in the wind. It's only necessary to stake and wire newly planted trees with bare roots or a broken ball that might blow over in a storm. With a good root ball, it's usually not necessary. The greatest problem with staking is that there is seldom a plan to remove the stakes and wires. The tree grows around the wire; it impedes the normal flow of nutrients, and the plants often die. Always remove guy wires in one year.
If you must stake trees, use tree stakes from a garden center. Wire the tree on three sides to keep it from blowing to one side or the other. Use rubber hose around the wire to protect the bark.
Don't fertilize while back-filling. Add a variety of growth stimulants instead. I recommend a mixture of vitamins, humic acid, sea products and other natural materials. I use Roots and Superthrive. Both are very effective.
There are also mycorrhizae-based products that will give trees everything they'll require to thrive for generations. This latest generation of growth stimulants is available at garden centers. One that we use commercially is called Mycor Tree Saver. It contains the mycorrhizal fungi, a moisture-holding gel, and bio-stimulants, such as kelp and humic acid.
For more information on bio-stimulants and an extensive list of links to help you with your tree-planting program and other landscape endeavors, go to the Web and check out www.planthealthcare.com.
Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org