Longlived Trees

Sunday, September 15, 2002

Imagine it’s the year 2051, or whatever will be your centennial birthday. Generations of your children are gathered at the family place, the gracious home you live in now. They’ve come from near and far to honor your longevity; it’s a truly grand occasion. Now imagine the backyard scene: picnic tables heavy with your favorite foods await the partygoers, shaded by the huge tree you planted way back in 1998.

Every home deserves a great tree. Take a look at the house from the street to get an idea about placement. A large tree should be planted far enough from any structure to let it develop its natural form without severe pruning. Its basic shape may be spreading above its trunk to create shade or upright and conical with leaves reaching to the ground. Each makes a strong design statement. Shade trees extend and then soften the lines of the house they shelter, while cone shapes provide strong, uplifting vertical lines. Both make excellent focal points in your landscape.    

To choose the best tree to become your legacy, go to nearby arboretums and botanical gardens, or cruise around old city parks and neighborhoods to see a wide variety of mature trees that thrive in your area. Notice whether they live in sun or shade, if the tree stands in water or on a slope, where the lawn around it stops, and how much space it takes up. Then select a similar spot in your garden.  When buying the tree, select one with healthy leaves, no cuts on the trunk, and remember this: a tree that is between six and ten feet tall this year will take no longer to mature than one that is already fifteen feet tall.

Dig a hole for your tree based on its container size: twice as wide as it is, and half again deeper. Mix native soil with any amendments necessary, usually organic matter and fertilizers. Tap the edge of the container on a hard surface to loosen the roots, slide the ball out and spread the roots or slice through the sides of a solid root mass. Use the soil mix to create a mound in the hole and gently place the roots in it. Backfill around the tree with mix, leaving a well around its edge to hold water. Irrigate well, using root stimulator or starter solution fertilizer, then mulch. Do not stake trees for more than one year.

Water weekly for the first month of your tree’s life; if you want to add fertilizer, use only root stimulator initally. For the first year, make monthly maintenance a part of your garden rhythm to give your tree long life and prosperity. Water deeply unless snow cover or torrential rain takes care of that. Keep a watchful eye for insects and other leaf problems. Spots may be sunburn or fungus, gray coating is likely a mildew, and chewed leaves often mean dining caterpillars. All can be more easily controlled early on, with plenty of recovery time for the tree.

Should a tree you plant wilt immediately and does not recover by spring, scratch its bark to see if green remains. If it does, tip prune the tree.
To maximize growth, fertilize with a complete tree formula (one containing N-P-K and trace elements) in the spring and a winterizer in fall. Once established, hardy trees rely on rainfall and benefit from annual fertilizer applications.

A final caveat on growing great trees: mortal wounds from lawnmowers and string trimmers kill more trees than any insect or disease, so keep them away.
Each region boasts great trees befitting a legacy. Wherever you live, there’s an oak (Quercus sp.) to suit the climate. White Oak (Q. alba) sets the standard nationwide, but others like live oak in the deep south or bur oak (hardy even in zone 2) have equal appeal. Baldcypress, like the other legacy trees, can grow to 50 feet tall in as many years. The spectacular Ginkgo biloba’s leaves turn bold gold overnight in autumn. Like Ginkgo, the Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) came back from near extinction to its present popularity in our lifetime. Perhaps that’s another good reason to plant one: humans quite nearly lost these magnificent trees, but humans also restored them to our gardens. 

This is the unedited version of an article that appeared in Garden Almanac, a publication of GroGroup. 

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