Trees are the most valuable and hardest working parts of our landscape. They shade our homes and neighborhoods, cutting energy costs. They increase property values, reduce air pollution and soil erosion, and provide habitat for wildlife. Not to mention the beauty and calming presence they add to our everyday lives. Since they are such a peaceful, serene part of the background, it’s easy to forget that trees require our care to thrive. Proper tree maintenance is essential to their continued growth and ongoing health. With that in mind, here are 10 tips to keep your trees healthy:
1. Plant the right tree. This is the first, and one of the most important steps in making sure you get years of enjoyment from any tree. Choose a species that is well adapted to our North Carolina climate and the specific conditions of soil, light and space at the planting site. For more information on the best trees for this region, visit the North Carolina State Cooperative Extension tree page.
2. Remove stakes early. A tree that is allowed to sway in the wind develops a stronger trunk. If a new tree can’t stand on its own, use a two-stake system (one on either side of the root ball) with a loose, flexible tie in between to support the trunk. Remove the stakes as soon as the tree can stand alone, hopefully after one year.
3. Keep the grass away. Grass growing up against the trunk competes with the tree for air, water and nutrients (and usually wins the competition). Young trees, in particular, often develop poorly when grass is allowed to grow right up against their trunks. For best results, maintain a grass-free, mulched area around the trunk instead.
4. Water properly. Young trees especially need regular watering, but even mature trees need to be watered during periods of drought. Water deeply to saturate the entire root zone (2-3 feet deep for mature trees) to just outside the drip line (an imaginary line from the outside of the tree canopy down to soil level). Allow the soil to partially dry before watering again. Don’t count on lawn sprinklers to do the job for you. They rarely wet deep enough and can result in shallow rooted trees. Soil basins or drip irrigation are better options.
5. Fertilize when needed. Don’t assume trees need to be fed on an annual basis. Young trees may need occasional fertilizing until established, but mature trees often don’t need to be fed at all. Feed only if trees are growing poorly or have yellowing foliage. A soil test will confirm exactly which nutrients are needed.
6. Mulch. Apply 2-3 inches of organic mulch, such as pine straw or compost, under the canopy of the tree. Mulch cools the soil, conserves moisture, improves soil texture and reduces weeds. Replenish often.
7. Prune properly. Pruning enhances the structure and strength of your trees, making thinning cuts (removing entire limbs at their origin) as opposed to heading cuts (cutting along the length of a branch or hat-racking). If you are planning on cutting branches with a chainsaw yourself, make sure your chainsaw chain is sharpened for a clean cut to prevent damage to your tree. For large trees, consult a certified arborist or tree cutting service.
8. Protect the roots. Cars and heavy equipment should never be allowed to drive over the root areas of trees. They compact soil, reducing available oxygen, and can kill roots. Nor should you remove or add soil beneath tree canopies without consulting a certified arborist. Changing grades can also harm roots and weaken trees, often killing them or making them more susceptible to storm damage.
9. Protect the trunk. Bumping into trees with lawn mowers or whipping the trunks with weed-eaters damages the bark and trunk, weakening the tree structurally while inviting insects and disease. Young trees are particularly susceptible but can be protected with plastic wraps available at nurseries and garden centers. Better yet, maintain a 2- to 3-foot wide grass-free, mulched ring around the tree.
10. Control pests. Insect pests like Japanese beetles, adelgids and caterpillars can seriously damage or weaken trees. For more information about tree pests and control measures, please visit the Bayer Advanced Tree Care 101 website.
Lance Walheim is a Bayer Advanced lawn and garden expert, author of Lawn Care for Dummies and co-author of Landscaping for Dummies.