You spent a lot of time picking out a tree for your back yard, digging the hole, fertilizing, watering and babying that tree and there it sits doing nothing. If this happened to you, it’s time to don the sleuth’s hat and go through this checklist of what might being going wrong.
1. Tree Species
First and foremost, selecting tree species that thrive in your climate is the most important consideration. Trying to introduce trees not recommended for your area will almost ensure health problems down the road. My experience is never assume your nursery knows what tree is best for your yard. Contact your local cooperative extension service or hire a landscape architect in your area for suggestions.
2. Tree Health at Purchase
When selecting a tree for purchase, I always look carefully at the health of the tree. If it has problems when you buy it, they will only get worse. Are there signs of insects? Pass. Are there roots growing out of the drainage holes? Pass. This indicates a root-bound situation. Is the tree top heavy? Pass. You want to avoid staking if possible. The tree should be able to stand up on its own.
3. Planting Depth
If your tree planting hole was deeper than the root ball of the tree when planted, chances are the tree’s feeder roots are suffocating. Never plant trees so soil covers the root ball or the root ball is lower than the surrounding ground. This stunts growth. In severe cases, the tree may die. Removing any excess soil from around the trunk may help, but be careful not to dig so deep as to break tiny roots.
4. Soil Compaction
Compacted soils in the planting area inhibit root growth significantly. Loosening the soil outside of the tree canopy down a foot will help, but do not disturb existing roots. To avoid, always dig holes at least 3 to 5 times the width of the root ball and with sloping sides to encourage lateral root growth.
5. Stakes Left on Too Long
If you staked your tree over a year ago and never removed them, the stakes are causing poor root formation. Trees should not be staked unless they can’t stand up on their own. If staking could not be avoided, check every few months to see if the tree no longer needs them. Ideally, do not leave stakes on for more than one year. Trees need to sway in the wind to form a strong trunk and root system. Stakes prevent a strong, tapered trunk and roots from spreading out far and wide for support.
6. Improper Irrigation
Trees need water regularly when newly planted, gradually tapering off as weeks go by. In hot weather a new tree needs deep water daily. Water needs to penetrate deeply and include the root ball and beyond to encourage roots to move through the soil. If you are watering too shallow, the roots dry out too quickly resulting in poor growth. Deep watering will encourage more drought resistance later in the trees life.
Reference: Richard Harris et. al., Arboriculture: Integrated Management of Landscape Trees, Shrubs and Vines.
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