University of Illinois Extension

Plant That Tree

Fall is a great time for planting trees in your landscape, notes Richard Hentschel, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture specialist.

“Large retail nurseries will often let you tag a tree to be dug later,” said Hentschel. “Trees are also available at retail garden and nursery centers. A tree that has a trunk diameter of two to two-and-a-half inches is a pretty good-sized tree for the homeowner.

Spruce“At that size, the tree is not so small that the canopy has not developed but not too big to handle once you get it home.”

Nursery-grown trees will be root-pruned, creating a root system closer to the trunk. Canopies will have been properly trained and pruned to provide homeowners with a good start to getting shade in their yards.

“Research indicates that how a tree is planted can make a big difference in how quickly and how well it establishes itself in your yard,” he said. “Trees planted too deep are the main cause of poor establishments in most situations involving urban landscapes with heavily disturbed or heavy clay soils.

“Roots will naturally grow down into the soil profile but find it hard to grow upwards in the soil. Disturbed soils lack the proper pore spaces that allow air and water free movement in the soil.”

An important factor in determining if the tree establishes itself or languishes is the planting hole you dig, he added.

“Trees that are slow to establish are often easy targets for insects and diseases,” he said. “The hole should be no deeper than the measured ball and two to three times as wide near the top of the measured ball. If there is a question of the soil draining properly, you can dig a slightly shallower hole and the roots will naturally grow down to their desired level.

“Since many of the feeding roots live in the upper 12 inches or so of soil, they really benefit from the planting hole being a lot wider at the top third.”

Once the tree is in the hole and sitting straight, backfill the hole with the dirt you dug out. When the hole is about three-fourths filled, settle that soil by adding water. After the water has settled the soil, continue filling the hole and creating a watering berm with any leftover soil.

“Apply more water to settle the newly added soil,” he said. “Make sure to check the moisture in the ball and surrounding soil regularly. Water when needed.”

OakFor trees planted in the late fall, the time the roots have to grow out into the soil can be extended by mulching. This keeps the soil from getting too cold, allowing the roots several more weeks to grow. Be sure to water one last time before the ground freezes.

“Thin-barked trees will need to have the trunk wrapped to prevent sun scalding and freeze cracks,” Hentschel said. “Once good spring weather returns, you can remove the wrap. By the second winter, the tree will have adapted to its current orientation and you will not need to wrap it again.”

How long does it take a tree to recover from the initial planting?

“You can count on at least one year for every inch of trunk diameter,” he said. “During this time, gardeners will need to continue monitoring the tree and providing water. Visual signs that the tree has recovered from transplanting will be leaves of normal size, an increasing annual growth rate, and a fuller canopy of foliage.

“If you have a larger tree, the recovery time will be even longer. Just remember, the longer the recovery time, the more time insects and diseases have to find your tree.”