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  • Writer's pictureMartin Ford

The 'danger' of guaranteeing newly planted trees

A nursery grown tree has had its root system minimized to make it lighter to transport and to reduce transplant shock.

To still enable rapid growth, the grower ensures that there is a constant supply of water and nutrients, along with an aerated and well-draining soil medium. As a result, the plant is healthy, but its small root mass is dependent.

Therefore, when it is set into its final growing site, it is essential to provide similar quantities of water and consistent timing of water availability as that to which it is accustomed.

In this manner the tree will be able to keep its canopy supplied with sufficient water – especially during the heat of summer.

This means it is critical that someone takes responsibility for applying water. The question becomes: Who will do this so that the root system does not dry out? The installer is far too busy planting more trees to be able to return each day or so to water.

The home/site owners are the people best placed to answer the tree's needs but how do we motivate them to take the responsibility that the tree requires? Firstly, they need the knowledge of what is required and why – especially in that first year after planting.

Too much water can also be a problem, and typically inexperienced people will stand and direct water from a hose onto the root ball – much of the water runs off and yet the homeowner thinks that as long as the surface is wet then it has been watered enough. But this is not enough, as it is the whole root mass which must be moist.

To avoid this situation, I recommend that the hose be placed at the base of the tree and the water set to run at a trickle for an hour or more just after planting, and then every day or two for half an hour, depending on the temperature and if there has been rainfall.

This watering routine during the first year should continue until freeze-up in northern climates, and also during warm thaws if it is a mild winter.

After that pivotal first year of care, trees should continue to be watered. Every third or fourth day is usually sufficient, but it is important that the root ball is always wet, as once it dries the tree stops growing and will not usually start up again until the next year, which means little growth for that season.

Also, by watering this way, the homeowner doesn’t need to stand there with the hose the entire time but can relax doing something else until it is time to move the hose to the next plant – this encourages watering and doesn’t feel like a frustrating imposition on their available time. Plants are living entities – like pets they need water, and as owners, we become responsible to supply what the plant needs.

It is for this reason that I do not guarantee trees that are planted as part of my designs. It brings home to the owner that the plant needs them to commit to helping it settle successfully into its final home. If, however, the plant dies in the first month, I would attribute that to transplant shock, which does occasionally happen, and thus provide a replacement, but this rare.

By not giving a guarantee, the homeowner recognizes the essential part they play in helping this small root system adapt and grow into the surrounding soil.

I have found that when a homeowner understands that while the canopy is large the roots are small, then they can ‘see’ how important it is for root mass to have regular water to enable it to maintain a ‘happy’ canopy. They visually recognize the imbalance between root mass and leaf mass.

This understanding helps them become ‘connected’ to caring for the tree from day one.

Hence, I have found that explaining why I do not guarantee trees, plus stressing the information of how to water (by setting the hose to a trickle at the tree base), are key to helping the tree through its first year. Then the home/site owner knows how important their role is for their tree’s future, and this helps them connect to -and thus - enjoy caring for their plants. 🏡


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