How to Plant a Tree So It Will Actually Live

Here’s the thing. Life as a tree in Las Vegas is already pretty stressful. It’s absurdly hot and then it’s cold and the soil’s about as nutritious as a box of chocolate donuts but minus the delicious taste. You couldn’t pay me enough personally to stand out there in the same spot all day and night, yet we draft our trees into the position with nothing more than a bit of water and maybe, maybe some fertilizer thrown down every so often.  Yeah, thanks but no thanks, bub.

I’d say the least we can do is provide them with the best conditions for a healthy start. Thankfully, it’s not really that hard to do things right. It’s more just a matter of knowing what to do and how to do it. So let’s get started with that part.

Planting Depth

This is honestly such a big problem. The worst part is you would expect a professional landscaper to know the proper planting depth for a tree. Please be aware that some of them just don’t though. Part of the problem is some growers bury the trees so they arrive at the nurseries this way. I wish I knew why they do it but I don’t. My theory is it might be to stabilize the trunks for transport to the nursery but that’s never been confirmed and I have no reason to believe it’s actually true outside of it being the only rational explanation I can think of.

Anyway, trees will sometimes need to have their trunks unburied at the time of planting so that the flare of the roots is about even with the soil.  If its roots are buried under several inches of soil, it won’t have access to the air it needs that’s present in that top layer of soil. What you’ll generally wind up with is a tree that just never seems to take off.  That’s why you want to make sure the root flare is visible when you plant and if someone else is doing the work for you, check for it. It’s obviously not always the issue but it does seem to happen a whole lot in this area.

 

Helpful Hint:  It’s generally a good idea to pull the rock back from the base of your tree a couple of feet, especially if it’s a tree that uses a bit more water. Put down some organic groundcover around the base in order to conserve moisture and reduce the heat around your new tree.

 

Can we all just take a minute to admire the root flare on this olive tree?

I mean, c’mon, that’s one damn fine root flare, guys.

 

Emitter Placement

The next big issue is how to irrigate a new tree here in Vegas.  That’s going to depend in large part on what type of tree you select, where you place it and what size container you plant. A drought-tolerant tree in a 15g bucket that’s placed in a spot with afternoon shade would likely only require three 2gph emitters while a tree with higher water needs in a 24″ box planted in the same light would need more like four or five 2gph emitters to do well. It is never okay to just put a couple of emitters at the base of a tree and call it good. That is not good at all. Ask any tree. They’ll back me up on this one, I feel sure of it.

Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. 

It is a good idea to place an emitter near the base for the first few months the tree is in the ground but that’s in addition to a few more further out. Once it’s established (after 6-12 months) you should pull that emitter away from the trunk or plug it. As the tree grows, you’ll want to add emitters to create a grid that extends the irrigation wetting pattern as far out as the canopy of the tree.  With desert trees, that grid can be pretty widely spaced and with higher water-use plants, it should be tighter to provide more water.  Emitter placement now complete but let me know if you have questions.

Beautiful!

 

Lodge Pole Support

When I knew I’d need some pictures of bad tree staking for this post I wasn’t even a little bit stressed about finding examples in our sweet valley. They’re pretty common and really easy to spot so I just took a drive to some commercial properties near me and hit the motherlode on my very first stop. All of the examples below are from the same site, so it seems like they either had several different people who were not all on the same page or they had one guy that was just playing the odds he’d actually get one right if he used enough variations of transport stake-lodge pole-tree tie configurations. I like the one guy theory myself since that would mean he had to really rack his brain working out his next deadly combination. I picture his tongue sticking out in earnest thought as he worked because it’s funnier that way in my head.

Poor staking can kill a tree and the thing is, it’s relatively easy to do it right. First and foremost, the transport stake should come off the tree once it’s in the ground. That’s the stake that’s strapped to the trunk to provide stability when the tree’s being moved from one place to another.

  1. Since I think we can all agree the whole point of planting a tree is that it will never again be transported anywhere ever, that stake comes off right away. It’s a must. If it doesn’t it rubs against the trunk and causes scars that can leave the tree open to pests and disease, as well as inhibit it’s ability to function. On the upside, that stake works great for locking a sliding glass door or gently poking at rattlesnakes in the desert, especially if you’ve always wanted to test your mettle. However you decide to put it to use is of no consequence to me, just please get it off your tree.

Next comes the actual lodge poles, which are those big 3″ round posts you can get at the nursery, usually in 8′ or 10′ lengths. These should be driven into the ground on each side of the tree, just outside the rootball. Two lodge poles will normally suffice but for very large trees you may need three, all just outside the rootball. None of them should be right up next to the trunk, for the same reasons the transport stake needs to come out.

 

I’m pretty sure this wasn’t part of the original plan.

 

Next, tie the tree with a material that won’t bind or cut into the surface layer of the bark. Arbor-Tie is a good product for this task but you can also use the rubber and wire ties seen here. Make sure you’re able to slip a couple of fingers between the bark and the tie easily, enough so that the tree’s allowed to wiggle a little when the wind blows. Remember that your goal here is to keep the tree from blowing over in a strong wind before it’s rooted, not keep it from trying to escape your lair. There’s no reason to lash it tight.

Now cut the top of the lodge poles off even with each other just below the tree’s lowest branches. This is to prevent the branches from knocking against the poles when the wind blows.

 

Finally, be sure to take the stakes and ties off the tree once it’s established, usually within the first year. If you want to see if it’s stable enough to be free of staking, try to move the trunk with your hand. If it feels sturdy in the soil, it should be just fine. If the soil around the base of the tree heaves up when you push on the trunk, that could be an indication that it’s not fully rooted and the stakes should probably stay in for awhile longer. If it doesn’t seem to be rooted in within 1.5 to 2 years it’s time to see if there’s a problem stopping it from settling in.

This is what happens when you tie the tree too tight and/or don’t remove the staking once it’s established. 

 

In the end, I’m happy to report that there were at least a couple of trees properly installed on that same site. They were also better tree choices, so I’m guessing they were installed at a later date by someone other than whoever put in the rest of them. They were planted at the right depth, with good staking and emitter placement, which means they’re set up for long-term success from the get-go.  It may not seem like a lot but it’s a good start to developing some nice big trees there down the road.

What say we see if we can ride this little wave to a valley full of beautiful, healthy shade trees, Las Vegas?  You in?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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7 Comments

    • Oh holy Moses I love where your heads at, Marcia. Would you mind terribly if we clone you and then use the clones to populate all of the most obnoxious HOA committees around town? I’ll give you a dollar if you say yes. Please, Marcia. For all of us.

      I mean, uh yeah, I guess that seems like something I could get on board with. Good question.

  • I.m not about to plant an trees, but if I do I will return to this page so that I know what to do, Please continue your blog

  • Great info! So if we pull away gravel from our plants, we need to cover with a mulch…ok. But does it Mayer if it’s bagged mulch or the bagged wood chips? The wood chips are much bigger and tend to stay in place vs the finely ground mulch. And for feeding large trees and shrubs in the summer, is it ok to use slow release granules or should we use diluted liquid fertilizer ? I’ve heard that granular fertilizers burn the plant. Thanks, Edgar

    • Hi Edgar, Great questions! The bark mulch will work but it will take longer for it to break down than a finer mulch. Where I work we use a shredded wood mulch from ViraGrow in North Las Vegas that’s called Gorilla Mesh and it tends to stay in place better than the bagged stuff. It’s sold in bulk so it’s cheaper and you can have them deliver it if you need a lot. As for feeding the trees and shrubs right now, I’d hold off for the next couple of months. In this heat, just about any form of fertilizer with enough nitrogen in it can burn plants. Besides, if you’re on a regular spring/fall feeding schedule with your plants they should be just fine going without for the summer. Thank you for reading and for caring about your plants 🙂

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