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How to Plant Trees, Shrubs, and Vines

Growing a Tree

It's easy to get started if you want to establish your own flowering trees. Just follow these guidelines to start the process.
  • Use spreaders on young fruit trees to correct narrow branch angles. Fruit trees are particularly prone to developing upright branches. They also grow tall and wild instead of slowing down to flower and fruit. Shifting them into a more productive mode begins with creating a wider branch angle.

  • When the tree is young and flexible, you can prop short struts in the gap between a shoot and the trunk to force the branch down into a better 45-degree angle. Slightly older branches can be tied to a stake or weight to pull them down into position. Once the branches mature enough to become firm and woody, you can remove the spreaders and the branches will stay in place.

    Depth is crucial when planting new trees.
    ©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
    Depth is crucial when planting new trees.

  • Pull or cut off the burlap before covering the roots with soil when planting balled and burlapped stock. This simple bit of housekeeping can mean the difference between success and failure for the tree. Some trees are wrapped with synthetic burlap, which will not decay thus preventing the roots from growing free. Even natural-fiber burlap left around the roots can be slow to decay. It can wick moisture away from the young roots, a sure way to cause damage.

  • Carefully consider planting depth before digging the hole for a new tree. You should make the hole twice as wide as the root-ball but no deeper than it. Setting the ball on solid ground that has not been fluffed by tilling or shoveling provides a firm foundation. If the soil underneath settles or shifts, the tree can sit too deep in the ground.
If planting in heavy clay soil, you can plant high so that the top third to top half of the root-ball is above the soil surface. This allows some roots to get out of soggy, poorly aerated soil. Fill in around the exposed roots with good soil, and top with mulch.
  • Check the accuracy of your planting hole depth using a shovel handle. When you think the hole may be deep enough, set the root-ball inside. Lay the shovel handle across the top of the hole. It should be even with or slightly lower than the top of the root-ball.

  • Plant groups of flowering trees in beds. When growing in clusters or groves, flowering trees look spectacular in the landscape, much more so than isolated individual trees. There are other advantages to planting larger groupings of trees:

  • In poor soils, roots can grow freely through the entire amended bed.

  • You can water and fertilize the entire group at the same time.

  • The problem of mowing or trimming around the trunks is eliminated, saving time and damage to the bark.

  • You can plant a shade garden in the grove.

  • Plant ground covers beneath your trees if you don't want a sea of mulch under them. Ground covers become a carpet of greenery and prevent mowing complications and root competition that can plague trees planted in turf.
Fertilizing and Mulching

Like all living organisms, woody plants need various nutrients and minerals, but unlike animals they do not need to be "fed" on a regular basis. They draw what they need from the sun's rays, the air that surrounds them, and the soil in which they grow. In most cases, a single annual fertilization is sufficient, starting the year after planting. Fertilizer is best applied in spring or early summer. Avoid fertilizing woody plants in late summer or fall. They have to harden off at that time of year, and a late application of fertilizer may stimulate rapid, weak growth that will not overwinter well.

Nurseries offer a wide variety of fertilizers, including some specifically designed for woody plants. Choose a slow-release fertilizer, which will ensure that your plant's needs are met over a long period of time rather than all at once. Most organic fertilizers naturally liberate minerals slowly, making them excellent choices.

Fertilizer should be applied near the base of the plant to a foot  beyond the outer branches.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Fertilizer should be applied from near the base of the
plant to a foot or so beyond the spread of the outer branches.

Fertilizer should be applied evenly throughout the area covered by the plant's root system. The root system often stretches beyond the spread of the plant's branches, especially on established plants. As a rule of thumb, calculate that the roots reach at least 3 feet beyond the plant's branches.

Granular fertilizers are easy to apply either by hand or by spreader. Carefully follow the directions on the package; you can apply less fertilizer than recommended, but never more. Water thoroughly after application to carry the fertilizer to root level. In the case of large trees, especially those that have to compete with grass for minerals, professional arborists often drill into the ground beneath and around the tree's canopy and fill the holes with fertilizer. This ensures that the fertilizer reaches the tree's roots rather than being used by the grass above. Specially conceived fertilizer stakes do much the same and can be applied by punching them into the soil with a hammer.

In the wild, most woody plants grow with a deep layer of fallen leaves covering their soil and roots. This layer keeps the soil from overheating in summer or freezing too hard in winter. It also keeps the soil from drying out too much and reduces or prevents the growth of weeds. The leaves also keep grasses in check, so woody plants in natural settings almost never have to compete with grasses. For these reasons, it is well worth your time to cover the soil at the base of woody plants with an organic mulch.

Apply mulch over the entire root area of the plant.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Apply mulch over the entire root area of the plant.

Many materials can be used as a mulch: chopped autumn leaves, buckwheat hulls, wood chips, bark nuggets, garden compost, conifer needles, and the like. Any fresh materials, such as sawdust, manure, or grass clippings, should be allowed to compost for several months before use. In dry climates, spray dry mulches frequently with water to prevent them from becoming a fire hazard.

Applying Mulch

Apply mulch over the entire root area of the plant, if possible. The larger the area covered with mulch, the healthier the plant likely will be. A few inches of mulch is sufficient. Mulch is biodegradable: As it breaks down while feeding the plant, you will have to add more mulch on a regular basis.

Your trees are in good shape to begin growing, now it's important to care for your trees. We'll show you how to care for your trees, shrubs, and vines in the next section.