Thursday, November 4, 2010


     Okay, here we go. I'm not entirely comfortable with this format, given my Luddite proclivities, but have run up against one of the immutable laws of publishing physics; i.e., lack of space equals smaller word counts. My regular gig as gardening columnist for the St. James Plantation newsletter, CatTales (Southport, NC) has become frustrating for a chatty writer like me. It's really hard be informative and amusing in 500 words. So my ever-resourceful husband, Tim, said, "Why not start a blog to take up the slack?"
     Naturally, I dismissed the idea out of hand... for about ten minutes. Tim walked me through the basics (12 times) until I understood, sort of. And here we are.
     (A friend of ours once had a t-shirt that said "My next husband will be normal." Tim's dream-shirt would read: "My next wife will be computer-literate.")
     Anyway, enough about me. Let's talk trees. (For those to who have no access to CatTales, the first two parts of my article about tree-planting follow in green text. Subsequent posts won't be so long. Promise.)
     From November 2010: Because fall is such a good time to plant them, let’s talk trees.
     Trees sequester carbon dioxide emissions produced by our oil-dependent lifestyles. Newly planted trees replace some of the biomass lost daily to the felling of acres of rainforest, for which we can’t really blame the people who live there: our ancestors hacked down forests all the way from the Atlantic seaboard to the Golden Gate.
     At the “What’s in it for me?” level, thoughtfully placed trees help reduce home heating and cooling costs by acting as buffers from winter winds and summer sun. The shade they provide can reduce water bills too, as plants receiving some relief from blast-furnace summer conditions require less supplemental irrigation. Maintenance couldn’t be easier: just provide adequate water and a topdressing of organic matter once or twice a year. Besides, the beauty of a well-sited tree is a joy forever and a legacy to future generations.
     Ready to get out there and do your bit for posterity and the planet? Okay then, now let’s talk holes.
     Have you ever seen those daunting planting instructions on landscape architects’ renderings or upscale plant tags? The ones that recommend digging a gorge about the breadth of Vermont and erecting a cinder cone-like structure in the crater’s center upon which to balance the plant while simultaneously undertaking a series of complicated maneuvers involving various strata of amendments and multiple dousings to backfill the gigantic hole? Heave a huge sigh of relief: you can forget that malarkey. The crux of such over-the-top instructions distills into two easily digested principles: 1) the hole has to be somewhat wider than the rootball; and 2) the fluffed-up contents of the backfilled hole will inevitably settle, so plan for that contingency in advance.
     It seems self-evident that a planting hole ought to be wider than the diameter of the unplanted plant. Make sure your hole comfortably accommodates the root-ball, with enough room left over to backfill without using a shoehorn or leaving air pockets. Personally, I like to be able to fit both my fists between the side of the hole and the pot on all sides.
     Actually, the most critical aspect of the planting hole is not its width, but its depth. This rates double emphasis: a shallow hole is always better that a deep one. Why does depth matter? Plants like being covered with dirt, right? Well, this is one of those yes-and-no situations. Yes, roots need coverage, but no, they don’t like being six feet under. Why? Because plants, like us, need to breathe to live: we use our noses and lungs, they use their roots. The deeper the roots are in the ground, the less air is available to them. Since most of a mature plant’s roots live within 18 inches of the surface, it is literally possible to asphyxiate a tree with dirt.
     From December 2010: Shall we resume the chat we started last month about trees?  
     To ensure your new tree sits high enough, find the place at the base of the trunk where it flares out: this point, called the root flare (duh), should always be above ground.
     Not only does digging a shallow hole mean less work, it neatly segues into Planting Principle #2, which is (for those of you with memories as retentive as mine) that every new plant settles over time. By starting high, you’ve already taken this phenomenon into account. For seven-gallon or smaller containers, leave the root flare one to two inches above ground level; for larger plants, aim for three to four inches.
     If your new tree arrives balled and burlapped, insist that the metal cage, strapping and all burlap be completely removed. Why? Cages and straps restrict root movement outward, in turn restricting canopy growth to the point of ugliness, sometimes to the point of death. Most burlap these days is synthetic and will not decompose. Ever. You can’t tell by sight or feel if the material is natural jute or spun styrofoam (those diabolical Monsanto engineers!), so play it safe and get rid of it. Yes, it’s an extra step. Yes, it’s worth it.
     Now let’s get your tree into the ground. Remove the pot (don’t laugh—forgetting this step is not unheard-of) and inspect the rootball. Sever any obviously circling roots. Rough up the outer surface—including the bottom—to facilitate new root growth into the surrounding soil. Throw a couple inches of Black Kow into the hole and mix well. Place the tree in the center of its new home. Make sure it’s straight, with its best side facing where you want it. (All container trees have a best side. It’s one of the sorrowful mysteries.) Refill the hole with the excavated dirt, tamping as you go to remove air pockets. Slope the backfill to just below the flare. Don’t worry if the mound looks funny—it’ll subside. Give your tree a good soaking, then topdress with another inch or two of Black Kow.
     On to irrigation. Anchor dripline at the outer edge of the rootball, and space three or four two-gallon emitters around the plant. Run that zone at least 15 minutes at least every other day for the first several years, until the root system establishes.   
     The bigger the tree at planting, the more likely it is to suffer transplant shock. Consistent watering is crucial to helping the tree weather symptoms like wilting and partial to total defoliation. (That’s why planting during dormancy is optimal: no leaves to wilt or fall off.) To help retain moisture, maintain a two-to-three-inch layer of organic mulch over the root zone out to six feet. Leave several inches of bare ground around the trunk, to create an inhospitable environment for non-beneficial fungi and bark-munching rodents.
     Just say no to staking. Why? Trees are like humans: give them an excuse not to move, and they’ll take it. Staking restricts the swaying needed to establish strong structural roots. If your new tree can’t stand upright on its own, it’s planted incorrectly. Besides, staking materials left in place longer than six months cause problems ranging from pathogen-inviting chafed bark to death-by-girdling. 
     What about fertilization? Tim and I topdress our trees with Kow-and-kelp twice (or, if I'm completely honest, once) a year. The recipe: three cups of kelp meal blended into a 50-pound bag of Kow. Distribute by the shovelful. Ideally, you'd clear away the mulch from the outer edge of the plant's canopy to maximize Kow-to-soil contact. If you're as lazy as I am, however, just dump the Kow mix on top of the mulch and ruffle it in with a garden claw. Repeat until all your trees are treated. That’s it.
      Gardening-products manufacturers have us thinking in terms of feeding the plant: but the truth of the matter is, it's the soil that needs tending. In order to transform chemical fertilizers into forms they can use, trees have to shut down other functions… like nutrient and water transport, growth, and defense mechanisms. Oh, dear. Seen from this perspective, sticking one of those rubbery tree spikes in the ground is at best counter-productive. At worst, it's heinously irresponsible.
     You know those allegedly water-retaining dikes of soil or mulch many sources recommend building around new transplants? Don't bother. Why not? you ask. Because in these parts, we have two basic types of dirt: sand and swamp-muck. No surface structure will ever corral water on top of sand. If you're stuck with dense and slow-draining swamp-muck, it's a bad idea to keep water sitting over your new plant's rootball. Unless, of course, you want the poor thing to drown.

Sunscald damage on
red maple
      One last thing: thin-skinned trees often fall victim to sunscald in winter. Due to freeze/thaw cycles, sunscald—also called southwest injury—causes vertical bark splits. Maples and fruit trees are particularly susceptible: so are most young trees. (With any luck, there'll be a picture of a sunscalded maple around here somewhere.) To prevent the problem, wrap the trunks of all newly installed trees between first and last frosts, which in southeastern NC means between late November and late March. With what? you ask. There are several choices. One commercial product I like looks like an over-sized perforated white-vinyl ringlet that spirals around the trunk. Natural burlap works well, too. I’ve read that a coat of white latex paint serves the same purpose, but I can’t believe that the break-down products of paint can be good for the soil. Air needs to circulate freely around the trunk to prevent problems worse than bark injury (no swathing with plastic bags, please). Just remove the wrap when temperatures moderate.
     I'm going to attempt links to mail-order companies that carry my favorite kelp meal (Gardens Alive!) and my favorite tree-wrap (Gemplers). Taking on difficult learning tasks is good for the aging brain, right? If I prove stupider than the machine (odds are 50-50), I'll just stick the references in the text of the next post.
     So there. That wasn't so bad. Please do sign on as a follower so I'll know somebody out there cares enough to read my ramblings. I'd also appreciate comments, and actively welcome constructive suggestions, especially concerning posting frequency---right now I'm thinking twice a week might be good. And for goodness' sake, please point out any grammatical failings you spot: a smug complacency is so unattractive.
      Thanks for dropping in. Y'all come back now, y'hear?