Taking Care of Your Tree

Trees, sadly, are often cared for only when first planted and then they're left to fend for themselves in landscapes after they've matured. People usually end this isolation only if the trees become diseased or damaged. Yes, you should take special care of your tree when it's newly planted to help it get established, but you should also make a habit of caring for it season by season, year by year, as it matures and grows. A healthy tree is a happy tree, and trees reflect the care you put into them in their beauty. Healthy trees often make the most beautiful trees, after all.

Giving trees a tall drink of water

The most important times to water a tree are when it's newly planted — indeed, throughout its first year — and during dry spells. Deep, soaking waterings are ideal. If you've made a basin around the tree on planting day (as I advise in the previous "Planting your tree" section), the water will go where needed instead of dribbling away.

Lay a hose at the base of the tree and run it on a slow trickle. Check back at intervals to make sure the water's soaking in. If it starts to run off, stop for a spell, let the water soak in, and then resume.

If you're wondering whether the water you supply is actually reaching the roots, dig about a foot down with a trowel and find out. You may be surprised to discover that you have to water for much longer than you thought. Trees are heavy drinkers!

Soak new, young trees twice a week their first year. Mature trees, of course, can go longer. How long depends on the type of tree, your soil, and the weather. When in doubt, water mature trees about once or twice a month during the height of summer.

In a drought, don't wait until the tree is shedding leaves or wilting to apply supplemental water (assuming your municipality doesn't forbid watering) — withholding water is very stressful for an already weakened plant.

Water bags are very handy for watering recently planted trees. Simply place these clever devices around a tree at the ground level and fill them with water. They're designed to slowly release water so that it gently saturates the soil around the tree roots without running off. See Figure 11-2.

Figure 11-2:

Water bags give trees a long, slow drink.

Figure 11-2:

Water bags give trees a long, slow drink.

Water Bags For Drinking

Fertilizing trees

Whether to fertilize a tree is strictly your call. If you know your garden soil isn't very fertile or you want to pamper a new, young tree, you may fertilize monthly or even more often during the growing season. Check at the nursery or garden center for tree fertilizer and apply or dilute according to the label directions.

Stop fertilizing as fall approaches! Plant food inspires fresh bursts of growth, which cold weather or an early frost can damage. Fall is the time when your tree should be slowing down in preparation for the coming winter, anyway.

Life and limb: Pruning judiciously

Pruning a tree and pruning a bush are really quite similar processes. You can really prune trees any time. Prune to remove obviously dead or damaged growth, to keep the tree healthy and your landscape beautiful, and to remove potentially dangerous branches that could fall and create a lot of damage.

Use sharp tools so you don't mash or rip your tree's growth, and use the right tool for the job — if handheld clippers struggle to make the cuts you want, graduate to loppers or a saw (flip to Chapter 5 for info on tools). Figure 11-3 shows you the basics on pruning trees and bushes. More-detailed information on pruning bushes is located later in the chapter in "Pruning for shape and rejuvenation."

In the spring, you can also remove suckers and watersprouts right at the base, whenever they appear, to help keep your tree well-groomed. Suckers are shoots that originate underground from the roots; watersprouts are the usually fast-growing vertical shoots that sprout along a branch or the trunk of the tree.

Winter is the best time to do maintenance pruning. The tree's profile is easier to see and assess, and the tree can recover from your cuts. Thin out tangled growth, a crowded interior, and generally shape the crown. Remove branches that are crossing one another or are in danger of rubbing against each other.

Training and pruning young trees

If you can get 'em while they're young — that is, prune a tree wisely and properly while it's still small — chances are that you'll have little more to do when it's older. Also, such cuts are smaller and consequently heal faster. But what you cut depends on what your goals are. Perhaps you want a single trunk. If so, watch and pick a trunk, and remove the competing leader or leaders.

Figure 11-3:

Four common ways to prune trees and shrubs.

Figure 11-3:

Four common ways to prune trees and shrubs.

Because distance from the ground never changes and distance between branches never changes, make your cuts only after careful observation of the entire tree. You want evenly spaced branches going up in a spiral so the mature tree will be attractive and full from all angles. Pick your keepers and remove all others.

Maintenance pruning of mature trees

Sometimes a branch, or more than one, needs to be removed from a large tree. Perhaps it was damaged by some sort of accident or a storm, or perhaps it's threatening a roof or power line.

Big limbs are best removed in a three-cut approach (see Figure 11-4) so you can lower them in pieces to the ground without damaging anything or hurting anyone. This approach also ensures that their removal doesn't involve ripping or twisting, which mars the tree itself. You may have to tie a rope securely to the branch's end so you, or a helper, can control its fall.

Figure 11-4:

Removing a large limb in three steps.

ranch collar

Here's how the cuts work:

  1. Make an undercut several inches out from where the branch attaches to a larger limb or the trunk, partway through.
  2. Make a cut from the top of the branch a few inches farther out.

As a result, the branch breaks off cleanly.

3. Remove the stub flush against the main branch or trunk, thus finishing the job neatly.

Don't bother with glue or tree paint. The wound will heal itself.

If the branch is heavy, up high in the tree, or seems to warrant the use of a chainsaw rather than a handsaw, this is a job for a professional arborist. For branches that are threatening a power line, notify your power company of the problem. If they don't take care of it, consult a professional arborist who's experienced in working around power lines.

Ask at a local garden center, ask neighbors who have had tree work done, or look in the Yellow Pages for a licensed, certified arborist. Then have the arborist over to look at the job, and get a written estimate. At this time, your instincts can tell you whether the arborist seems confident and competent. But still find out whether the he or she is insured and has training credentials, and get the number of at least one other customer as a reference. You don't want to hire an amateur and incur damage or have an accident on your property for which you may be liable. If you can, ask to see the arborist's work. Steer clear of those who top trees (lop off the ends of terminal limbs). This mutilation results in an unsightly, stubby-looking tree with large wounded limbs that are susceptible to disease and insect infestations.

Candle growth is the tender new growth (before the needles have expanded) of conifers. You can cut or "pinch" these growths when they're young to encourage branching (see Figure 11-5).

Figure 11-5:

Pruning candle growth on evergreens.

Figure 11-5:

Pruning candle growth on evergreens.

Bend candles to snap off

Pruned candles

Bend candles to snap off

Pruned candles

Raising the stakes: Offering some support

Staking is usually warranted only when the trunk is frail or exposed to strong winds. Wood stakes or metal, it doesn't especially matter, so long as the stakes are quite long, strong, and sturdy.

Stakes should be sunk deep into the ground — another reason to stake when the tree's young (with a larger tree, you may find the roots obstructing the way or you may harm the roots as you plunge in the stake). Unlike staking, say, a top-heavy dahlia, tree stakes are not placed right close to the stem they're meant to support. Tree stakes are much more effective when you put them a distance away (just beyond the watering basin is good — see the previous "Planting your tree" section) and connected with string or wire or cloth to the tree. See Figure 11-6.

Figure 11-6:

Two different ways to stake a tree. Use the method on the left if wind comes from one direction, and use the method on the right if wind comes from several directions.

Arborist Spiral Cut Evergreens

To avoid laceration of the tree trunk or branches, protect wire or twine with plastic or a length of hose, or use a softer material such as cloth strips.

If you drive two stakes into the ground on opposite sides of a small tree and connect each one to the trunk, the result is quite stable; using three stakes balances the tree even better, especially when you have prevailing strong winds. You can probably remove the stakes after the first year — their work is done, and the youngster ready to stand on its own.

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