Rooting for the Home Team - Tree Care ABCs for Homeowners


by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden



Lacebark Elms in winter light.



Of all garden plants, trees play the most important role. Their commanding height and strong trunks make them the centerpieces of our landscapes. They provide the basic infrastructure around which all other garden plans must revolve. In addition, trees are an incredible asset to us as homeowners. A well placed tree can save hundreds of dollars on utility bills by shading our homes from the sun. And ask any Realtor, a large healthy tree can add thousands of dollars to the property value of our homes. Tree care, then, becomes an imperative, though often daunting task for everyone who owns a yard.


I have hosted a call-in radio garden program for more than twenty years and questions about tree care are eternal. However, I often sense a feeling of hopelessness when it comes to tree questions because most folks assume there is little that they can do to care for their trees without hiring an arborist. There are times when all I can do is refer people to tree-care professionals. But there is little reason for despair, because homeowners usually can save themselves a great deal of money and heartache by attending to a few simple details—things that nearly anyone is capable of doing.


I’ll break my tree-care tips down into two basic segments: those for newly planted trees and those for the big boys in your yard.


Newly planted trees are very vulnerable to the extremes of our Texas climate and the most important responsibility we have to them is to keep them watered. Many people assume that if they have planted a tree within reach of an automatic sprinkler system then all of their work is done. Wrong! Very few people have their sprinkler systems set for the kind of duration that will allow the water to penetrate deep into the soil—the kind of watering that a young tree requires.


In nursery settings, when still in containers, young trees are watered deeply every day. Moving them from this setting into the ground can prove traumatic if you do not stick to a regular watering schedule. What do I recommend? Taking the occasional downpour into account, I tell people to water their young trees deeply once every seven days for at least the first two summers the plants are in the ground. Ideally, you should set your garden hose on a slow dribble and let it soak into the ground around the tree for a prolonged period of time.


Something that will really help any young tree is limiting the competition. Usually, this means grass. Believe it or not, lawn grass can out-compete a young tree. It is a very good idea to remove as much grass from around newly planted trees as possible. Once this is accomplished, applying a thin layer of compost followed by a thick layer of mulch in a wide circle around the tree will help to nourish it and protect its root-zone from compaction and overheating. A good ring of mulch will also reduce the possibility of lawnmower damage to the trunk—one of the leading causes of death among young trees.


Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary to prune young trees. In fact, I believe it is best not to prune young trees at all except to remove dead growth (an important exception to this general rule are the fruit trees that require training). Too many people “lollipop” their trees by removing the lower branches and leaving only top growth. They do this under the misconception that limiting the growth to further up the trunk will force the tree to grow faster. However, removing the lower branches exposes the root-zone to more heat and actually hinders growth.


The most efficient way to fertilize newly established trees is by spraying the foliage with liquid fertilizer. I use a pressurized pump sprayer to do the job. My favorite fertilizer is John’s Recipe Liquid Fertilizer (from The Natural Gardener). For flowering trees I add an occasional dose of Medina Hasta Gro Liquid Plant Food.


It is harder to spray down a larger, established tree and so a good alternative is to spread a thin layer of compost under its drip zone (the area just beneath the tips of the tree’s branches and beyond). Doing this once or twice a year in combination with the use of an organic lawn fertilizer (I use the Lady Bug 8-2-4 blend, also from The Natural Gardener) can greatly benefit even the oldest tree. Deep feeding with liquid fertilizer is another alternative for established trees and some of the better local arborists now offer this service.


The best gardening advice that I ever received was a variation of the old saying that “the best fertilizer for your garden is your shadow,” meaning your vigilance is your garden’s best friend. This is especially true for established trees. Even though you may not be able to perform all needed work yourself, you still have a critical role to play. Catching any disease or pest problem early is the best defense. Be on the lookout for dead or dying branches that should be removed promptly.


Pruning branches requires patience and proper technique. Never cut a branch off “flush” to the trunk. Instead, identify the branch “collar” and make your cut just beyond this point. Pruning paint is not recommended except in the case of species susceptible to Oak Wilt. There are many good books that outline proper pruning procedures, I recommend Howard Garrett’s Texas Organic Gardening as a good introductory volume.


Finally, when you really must hire an arborist it is critical that you do your homework. Two guys with a pick-up truck and a saw may claim to be arborists—and they may quote a very tempting price—but they may also irreparably damage your trees (not to mention your home and themselves) in the process. Check to see if they are members of professional organizations, make sure that they are certified, and ask for proof of insurance and references. Your trees are worth it!



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