If you planted a new tree or shrub this year, you're probably thinking that your job is done, right? Nothing left to do but sit back and watch it grow. It's true that plants survive unassisted in the wild they have existed and thrived for millions of years without any help from us. A little preventative maintenance on your part, however, may make the difference between a lush landscape or a lawn full of dead sticks!
Trees and shrubs have some basic requirements for good health and growth. Trunks, branches and leaves need sufficient light, water and air to function normally. Roots require water, air and nutrients. What is normal function for a tree or shrub, anyway? Leaves are involved in air exchange ("breathing"), food production, and cooling (yes, even trees and shrubs "sweat" on occasion!). Shoots increase plant height (primary growth). Branches and trunks provide structural support, conductive tissue for movement and storage of food and water, and secondary growth (trunk diameter). Roots also provide storage, as well as anchorage and absorption of soil nutrients and water.
In light of these requirements, here are a few tips for healthier trees and shrubs.
1. Maintain proper nutrition: Fertilizer recommendations often can be found on the care tags which come with your new tree or shrub- it is especially important to follow these suggestions for the first few years after planting to get your tree or shrub off to a good start. Trees and shrubs with good nutrition are less prone to succumb to disease and insect problems and more likely to survive adverse conditions down the road. Routine fertilization later in the life of your plant is also important for good health and a long life.
What's the "dirt" on soil nutrients, you ask? Soil is divided into types based on size and density of its particles. Three categories often used to describe soil are sandy, loamy and clayey, listed here in order of decreasing size and space between particles. A sandy loam, then, would be the most desirable soil, having enough space between particles to allow for good drainage as well as good anchorage. The average garden loam has the 16 essential minor elements required for tree and shrub growth. Some are easily dissolved in soil water; others must be released from soil particles by soil microbes before they can be absorbed. The three major elements, Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K) are required in larger amounts and need to be added periodically to keep soil levels high enough to support good growth. A general rule of (green) thumb for fertilizing is nitrogen for leaves, phosphorus for roots, and potassium for flowers. A balanced fertilizer for over-all plant growth, like 10-10-10 (N-P-K) is a good choice. For increased flowering look for a fertilizer that has a higher amount of Potassium (last number) in the formula like 0-0-24. If you are concerned about your soil, consider having a soil test prior to fertilizing in order to determine which nutrients, if any, may be lacking or in short supply. Fertilize accordingly.
Remember that it is best to fertilize early in the season. Avoid adding fertilizers after the end of June. That flush of new growth from late summer fertilization may not have time to harden off before winter arrives, opening the door for possible frost injury and dieback. Avoid pruning after this period also, for the same reasons. If you need to prune late in the season try to wait until after the leaves have fallen or the trees or shrubs are dormant.
2. Maintain adequate soil moisture: This cannot be over emphasized! Newly planted trees and shrubs have somewhat limited root systems for drawing soil moisture the first couple years after planting. Be sure to water new plantings well and often, especially during times of high water stress such as long, hot, dry periods. Direct watering with a five-gallon pail or the garden hose will do more good than the sprinkler used for the lawn. Water early in the morning or just before sunset at night to reduce water loss due to evaporation. Avoid wetting foliage to reduce chances of disease. Be sure to soak the soil immediately around the plant, just above the root ball. Mulching will help to retain soil moisture. Build a berm of mulch or soil (a raised circular 3"-4" ridge) one-to-three feet away from the trunk just outside the root ball area around the new planting to keep added water close to the plant where it can be absorbed and used more efficiently. If the average tomato plant needs two or three gallons, you can see that you need to water generously with something larger!
3. Avoid mechanical injuries: "Lawn mower disease" is a serious threat to new plantings. Be sure to mark plantings well so that they are clearly visible to those mowing around them. Leave adequate spacing and mulch the area immediately around the planting to avoid scrapes or cuts in trunks by lawn equipment. Weed-eaters can be especially damaging if operated at too close a distance. Tree guards or wraps around trunks may lessen these types of damage, but remember to loosen them as the tree grows, so the trunk is not girdled later on.
Staking is also important for taller plants to help roots establish firm anchorage. This is especially important if you live in a windy area or if the planting is on an exposed site or slope. Protect the trunk from wire cuts and abrasion by using a flat piece of inner tubing underneath as a protective covering. Consider removing stakes and wire after a year or two: permanent anchorage inhibits the trunk's development of the strongest possible wood.
Discourage pets from damaging new plantings as much as possible. Wire cages or fences may be necessary to prevent damage from urine or scratching. Push wires through bars of heavily-scented soap and hang from plantings to discourage deer and other wildlife from feeding on new plantings.
Where winters are severe and plantings are small in size- consider using wooden shelters for the plantings for the first few winters to prevent breakage from heavy snow loads. Be sure, however, to leave them partly open so that mice and other winter nibblers don't take up residence and strip trunks and stems.
Watch for disease and insect problems that may develop and treat them as they appear. Consult your local Cooperative Extension agent, Master Gardener, garden shop, or nursery owner for help in identifying problems of this type and getting treatment information.
Avoid plant and re-plant problems in a big way! A small amount of preventative maintenance on your part during the first few years after planting can result in big rewards. Make your new planting both a one time and lifetime investment by maintaining proper plant health. Then you can really sit back and watch them grow!
by Cathy Heidenreich
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Last modified January 21,1998