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Every year about this time, I grow a bit weary of all of the holiday stuff and the typical cool and wet weather of our winters. The only solution to this is to get out and get a little bit of dirt under the fingernails. Of course, purists will recoil at the mention of dirt.
Yes, I know, the stuff we grow plants in is soil, but even though I’m quickly closing in on the big Five-O, I’m still that kid pushing those Buddy-L and Tonka bulldozers and dump trucks around the sand pile.
This is a great time to plant trees, especially larger balled and burlapped specimens that generally do best when moved during the dormant season. Before you rush down to the nursery and buy a tree, do your homework. Planting a tree, especially large shade trees, is all about the optimism of the future. Long-lived species such as oak may be around for several hundred years, so choose the right tree and location and plant it properly.
If you need some help with what works in this part of the world, check out our Web site at http://brunswick.ces.ncsu.edu/. Click on the “Newcomers Kit” link about halfway down the page and you’ll find lots of different plant lists, including large trees.
Try to think about the mature size of the trees you’re planting rather than how it looks now. Look up and see if there are power lines or other obstructions. Will the tree have adequate root space? When the inevitable surface roots develop, will streets, sidewalks and building foundations be affected?
When planting in individual holes, the research shows what comes out needs to go back in. Tree roots “learn” their environment. If you fill the planting hole with wonderful, high organic matter soil and the rest of the area is pure sand or heavy clay, most of your new tree’s roots will just hang out in the good stuff. Dig wide, shallow planting holes that are no deeper than the height of the rootball. If the soil is poorly drained, plant slightly above grade and add soil around the rootball.
The PhD’s continue to debate the proper way to handle the wire baskets that help support these large trees. Some say you must remove the entire basket to prevent girdling of the roots. I don’t think that’s practical. Cut the top couple of wires and fold as much of the basket as possible down. Make sure the burlap is removed from the top of the rootball and covered with soil; backfill and water to settle the air pockets. I’ve planted thousands of trees with that method and never had a problem.
Recent research on mulch shows a shallow layer (2 inches or less) directly on top of the root system is best. Don’t pile mulch against the trunk. It’s the absence of weeds and grass for the tree to compete with rather than the presence of mulch that gives your new tree the best chance.