Plant a new tree, put nothing on its feet except mulch!
Little plants can be big competition to a new tree
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We just got into a new home and I wanted people to
notice my flowers. They have, but besides compliments I've gotten
some warnings. Is it true that I'm hurting my trees by planting
flowers around the trunks? - L.M. -
If it's a young tree and you're planting right in or close
around its root ball, that can't help and can hurt the tree. Its
roots must grow new tips so the tree can establish itself, but
competition from fast growing annuals right in that same space or
grass at the outer edge of the root ball can slow or even prevent
that. (A study by a tree planting specialist we
greatly admire, Gary Watson of Morton Arboretum, measured the
effect at a one-third loss or greater over 5 years.) This applies
to all tree species, even the "tough" ones.
Clear and mulch around a new tree so it's at the center of a
circle that's two feet in diameter for every one inch of trunk
diameter. Keep that area plant-free.
For a tree planting step-by-step
Increase the size of the circle as the tree grows, to eliminate
plants above the new roots at the edge of the root zone. Loosen the
soil in that new outer ring.
Expect the roots to extend themselves about twice as far as the
branches if all grows well. (The tree pictured at the top of this
page is sad for having its roots confined to the surface, but it's
normal for the breadth of the root zone.)
No grass or flowers under a new tree
If it's a species with sensitive roots (fleshy, easily broken
roots that don't regenerate rapidly) such as magnolia, birch or
dogwood, the stress of root disturbance is also a very big
set-back. Planting annual flowers may seem to be very minor digging
yet still can cause significant set back to the sensitive-root
tree, even after it is well established.
So don't plant into a new tree's root ball or into the space
just outside the ball. The best plantspeople urge us to eliminate the lawn
in that circle. Give the tree at least a year to solo in its
Add groundcover later
The bigger the new tree is to begin with, the longer its solo
time must be. If its trunk is up to one inch in diameter, one year
may be enough time to establish, which means to grow enough roots
to support its top. A tree with a two-inch trunk needs at least two
years, a three inch tree three years, etc.
A tree with a trunk one inch in diameter at six inches above the
ground is called a "one inch caliper tree."
After a tree's established but while you're still cheering it
on, use minimal disturbance plants there. Choose groundcovers or
long-lived perennials that don't have to be replanted every year
and don't need frequent dividing.
While we're on the topic, if you're shopping for a new tree, buy small.
It's the best return for your money and nets the lowest care
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