Continued Care for Tree Health

By Dina Haveric, Green Iowa AmeriCorps Member

The power of trees reaches far beyond the charm they provide to the natural landscape. Trees absorb pollutants, reduce energy costs, provide oxygen, mitigate soil erosion, and provide a plethora of social, economic, and environmental benefits. Maximizing your tree’s benefits will require some work however. Regular upkeep and maintenance are required to ensure your tree stays healthy for years to come. Follow this guide for more information on continued tree care and to maximize the benefits your trees provide.

Right Tree, Right Place.

Proper tree care begins with choosing the right tree for your landscape and planting it in the right place. For starters, when choosing your tree, consider what the purpose of this tree will be. Are you looking to reduce your energy costs with a shade tree? Are you hoping to add aesthetic value to your property with an ornamental tree? Whatever the goal of your planting may be, determining the purpose of your tree will help gauge the suitability of different trees on your property.

It is equally as important to consider the limitations of your site before planting your tree. What kind of the sun exposure and soil conditions are present? What is the maximum height and spread for a tree in this location? Planting trees that aren’t compatible with your soil conditions or planting large trees in small spaces can be devastating to the health of your tree. Taking some time to assess the conditions of your site before planting can help you avoid unnecessary problems down the road.

For more information on how to plant your tree, check out our step by step planting guide or watch our How to Plant a Tree Instructional Video.

Water.

Watering is an essential part of tree care, but it can be difficult to determine the exact amount due to varying climate conditions and tree needs. Below are some guidelines to help you properly water your trees:

Newly Planted Trees: Newly planted trees will require more frequent watering than established trees. Trees should be watered immediately after planting and watered daily for the first week or two after planting. Three to twelve weeks after planting, water your tree every 2 to 3 days. After twelve weeks, water your tree weekly.

First Two Years: Throughout its first two growing seasons, your newly planted tree is using most of its energy to establish roots in the soil. You can aid your tree in this process by watering it with 5 to 15 gallons of water weekly for its first two years of life. This is especially important during the summer months, as the hot temperatures and drought conditions can stress your tree out.

Watering Accessories: Accessories like watering bags or buckets can make tree watering more efficient and cost-effective. Not only are these incredibly easy to use, but they help mitigate the challenges of over-watering and under-watering. You might even consider creating your own drip irrigation system. Start with a 5-gallon buckets and drill 1 to 2 holes on the bottom center of the bucket. Next, position the bucket over the root zone of the tree, fill with water, and wait for the water to empty before refilling.

When and Where to Water: As a general rule, you should water your tree from ground thaw to ground freeze, removing any watering bags or buckets during the winter months. When watering, apply water directly over the root ball or root zone of the tree. As your tree grows, expand the area being watered.

Mulch.

Adding mulch to your newly planted tree is a great way to improve soil structure, conserve moisture, and insulate the soil from extreme temperatures. Mulch also reduces damage from lawn-mowing equipment and prevents the growth of weeds around your tree. 

Proper Mulching Method: One important thing to note is that while mulching can be done at any time of the year, the middle of spring is the best time to do it as soil temperatures are high enough for root growth to begin. Before mulching, remove any grass within a 3-foot area around your tree, or up to 10-feet for larger trees. A great way to determine how much grass to remove is to account for the “drip line” or the outermost edge of your tree’s canopy. Next, apply a 2- to 4-inch layer of an organic mulch such as hardwood bark within the area you removed grass from. For tree health, keep all mulch material away from the trunk of the tree, allowing the root flare to show. Consider replenishing mulch yearly.

Ground Cover: A great alternative to mulching is adding native ground cover to the area beneath your tree. Once established, ground covers smother weeds and require little maintenance. Not only do they provide additional beauty to your landscape, but they help keep your soil moist and prevent runoff.

Pruning.

Pruning is one of the most beneficial services you can provide to your tree. A proper pruning technique helps maintain the form and structure of a tree, increases tree health, and provides increased safety for yourself and your property.

Winter Pruning: The best and most common time to prune is in the winter between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day when trees are dormant and their structure is visible. Pruning your tree while it is dormant and before any new growth has started makes it easier for your tree to recover and produce healthy new growth when springtime rolls around. Be mindful to wait until the coldest part of winter has passed as incisions can dry out if the temperatures drop well below freezing.

Summer Pruning: The second-best time to prune is during mid-summer, after leaf growth is completed. Summer pruning presents an opportunity to direct the growth of your tree by slowing branches you don’t want or improving light penetration.

When Not to Prune: Never prune your tree during spring budding or fall leaf drop. Trees are using energy to perform these processes and will be less able to respond to the pruning wound. Additionally, decay fungi spread their spores during the fall leaving your tree more susceptible to fungal disease.

For more information on proper pruning technique, check out Pruning Practices for Healthy Trees.

Protection.

Another way you can help your tree thrive is by providing it with protection against wildlife and weather.

Deer: During the fall months, bucks rub their antlers on trees to mark their territory. This act removes the thin layer of bark on younger trees and can cause significant damage to trees. To prevent damage from deer, drive three sturdy wooden stake or fence posts around the tree in early fall. Space the stakes or posts about 18-inches apart.

Rabbits: To protect against damage from rabbits, place chicken wire or hardware cloth fencing around your tree. To prevent rabbits from crawling underneath the fencing, place U-shaped anchor pins along the bottom of the fencing and into the soil.

Voles: During the winter months, voles may eat the bark on small trees. To prevent damage to young trees, place cylinders of one-quarter-inch hardware cloth fencing around the trees. Bury the bottom 2 to 3 inches of the hardware cloth in the soil to prevent voles from burrowing underneath the fencing.

Roots: To protect your tree against root injury during the winter months, cover the roots of your newly planted tree with 2 to 4 inches of organic mulch, making sure to avoid getting the mulch too close to the trunk of the tree. The mulch will act as an insulator, keeping the soil temperatures higher and increasing spring root growth. Moist soil holds more heat than dry soil so, if the fall has been dry, make sure to water heavily before the ground freezes to reduce frost penetration.

Sunscald: Sunscald happens during the winter months and is caused by sudden temperatures changes of the bark. Newly planted trees are more susceptible to sunscald than established trees. To prevent sunscald, use a white commercial tree wrap or tree guard to reflect the sun and keep bark at a more constant temperature. Wrap newly planted trees for at least two winters after planting.

Tree Accessories: Remove tree guards, stakes, ties, and water accessories as your tree grows to prevent damage.

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