1. Location, location, location. Very few trees will do well in wet muck, atop ledge (close to surface stone), or in a cold hollow. The ideal position is on a slight hillside so cool air can run past your planting- it must have an outflow. Hillside also means water drainage. Spring flooding is usually ok, but should drain by the time growth begins in earnest or root death will ensue. Drain tile or trenching can help with water issues, and clearing air outflow by taking down trees and such can remedy that issue. Extremely dense hardpan soils and shallow ledge, however, cannot be corrected without excavation or blasting. The good news is there is usually a good spot to be had in close proximity, the subterranean world is often just as varied as the world on top. Aspect (think compass direction) isn’t as important, unless you are trying to influence blossom timing (ie- delaying early bloomers) or heating (ie- ripening grapes). Despite all these words, we all have to deal with the land we have and do the best with what we’ve got.
2. Soils. Look up any species and its soil preferences and you’ll find it would like a nice bed of something like “sandy loam”, or “rich loam” or somesuch. So, if you are one of the 1% of folks on this planet with this underfoot, you are in perfect shape. For the rest of us, we will have to make due. Any, and I mean any, soil can be made to grow food. Whether the amending process makes practical sense is entirely up to you to decide.( Look deeper at soil improvement coaching in the Research section of the website. Most important is to find spots in your landscape that will require the least labor and cost, bearing in mind a diversity of soil types may simply mean finding the right species for each area.
3. Dig that hole. A good shovel is all you really need, but a mattock/grubbing hoe will make short work of heavy sods and stubborn tree roots. Loosen the soil, then shovel it. It will prove easier and will also break the debris up so you can use it for backfill. Make the hole big enough to accommodate roots without bending them, but don’t overdo it. An overly expansive hole means a soft and fluffy perimeter, which can lead to poor anchorage. You want the tree to anchor its roots in firm soil in the near future.
4. Ammendments. Here too you want not to overdo things. Compost (which does not mean uncomposted manures) is always a good start, especially on soils low in organic matter. Phosphorus in the planting hole is also important as it is important for root development, does not move as easily through the soil in topdressings, and normally takes time to be made available to plants. General fertilizers are ok in the hole but often not advantageous. Anything containing nitrogen should be used only in plantings made before mid-summer or winter injury from succulent growth is likely. Furthermore, most nitrogen sources will produce injury to roots with direct contact.
5. Check over the tree. After removing the tree from the bag, pot or wrapping, check for roots that are injured or are that were circling and distorted. Spring or earlier summer planted trees will deal with root pruning and general root manipulation (ie- tugging, unwrapping and root ball loosening) better than late season planting. In this case prune away dead or decaying roots, and allow for distorted roots to be directed once in the hole. Fall planted trees, however will be less stressed if left alone. These should have their root ball left intact and unpruned or manipulated if the root system appears healthy.
6. Set the tree. A few spades of soft backfill and some of the ammendments should go in the hole first, followed by the tree in question. Nestle the tree in and continue filling the hole with the loosened backfill, etc. , while making sure the roots have good soil contact by periodically tamping. When the hole is filled, give it a good long drink. A 3-5 foot tree would like a 5 gallon pail. After the water settles, stamp the soil down well. If you are in a dry area, or have very sandy soil, a slight depression will help collect more water on rainy days. Firming the soil makes sure that there is good soil to root contact, and prevents large air pockets from drying roots out.
7. Stake it. Trees on standard rootstocks usually only need the support for the first year or two. Metal stakes go in easiest, but can be 3 times the price of a good ol’ cedar, oak or locust post. Large diameter wood posts are also far more sturdy. Two posts and support wires are often used. (Run the rope or wire through a piece of garden hose where it touches the tree, or use fabric to prevent rubbing damage). We normally use a single post, but you should pound the post into the hole (for close proximity to the trunk). If you attempt the single post after planting you are likely to smash it into your nicely planted tree roots. With either method, the tree should be tied loosely enough to allow it to sway and develop some trunk strength.
8. Place your trunk guard. A tree without a guard on the trunk will become a rodent’s next meal. Conceivable anything a mouse or vole can’t chew through will fit the bill. Hardware cloth is high on the list for toughness and longevity, and although pricier than screen it is cheaper in the long run. Metal window screen is fine, but some rust quickly and its can be absorbed into the growing trunk if it is wrapped tightly. Mesh plastic guards work ok, but plastics photodegrade eventually, and are less likely to be available at the local store. We do not advise the use of the common white spiral guards for several reasons. Firstly, they will quickly shatter under the influence of weather or string trimmer. Secondly, they take special skill to get the guard tight enough to keep critters out- which incidentally is their purpose. Finally, there have been a fair amount of reports of (and our experience with) trunk glazing, winter damage, and burr knots. Ideally a guard would be placed as a closed cylinder around the trunk without touching. It’ll go from soil level (or a bit deeper) and upward as high as it will go. A foot or so is often enough to deter voles and mice, but the higher the better, especially in colder areas since these little guys sometimes run atop the snow and nibble from the new heights. That said, most rodents will crawl lower, at the soil/snow interface and chew below.
9. Further protection. Those of you who live in areas with deer or moose pressure will need to protect new trees from heavy browsing and racking damage. If you have the ability to do so, a stong 8 or 9 foot fence is the best. It should be strong enough to take an animal that size trying to crash into it either accidentally or on purpose. Woven or welded metal fences are nice, 12 gauge or better. The plastic deer fences I have observed are nearly worthless. There may be some better ones out there but I have seen many torn to pieces the first season. The actual fence can be as low as 4 feet, provided you apply a continuous line of wire above it every foot or less so the animal cannot jump over. This too needs to be of sufficient gauge to withstand a leaping creature, 12 gauge being about the minimum, and wound (cables) are often better. For those on a budget that have only the occasion tree, a little corral of 4 posts and a 5’ tall fence will probably do just fine. Our original small planting used just that, and we never had any trouble. The corral should be too small a space for them to jump in, and too wide for them to reach the branches with their naughty little teeth. Do the best you can. Browsing will not kill it, but it is not what your young tree wants either. Smaller unit fencing like this also keeps out the bunnies which can also damage trees. We have heavy pressure of snowshoe hare here for instance, and cute as they are can do a real number on lower branches.
10. Keep it clear. A circular area about a foot in diameter should remain clear of clutter. This means organic mulches, weeds, and especially sod (aka perennial grasses). This means a clean cultivated area, or better yet a 2-3 inch layer of stone (¼ to 1 inch diameter). The cleared area allows the trunk to remain dryer and healthier. It also prevents any unnecessary competition in a tree’s young years. Organic mulches, like hay or wood chips will allow rodents a nest right up and cozy to the trunk, which we do not want. Also, these types of mulches are in the act of decaying, and that can be detrimental when in such close proximity to the bark. The benefits of the stone mulch are that it suppresses competing growth in the area while keeping the soil moist. It can also help to anchor the bottom portion of our tree guard. Stone mulch in cold areas will become a concrete like mass come winter and impenetrable to digging critters like voles. A clear area about the trunk will also make for a clean path of sight when looking for damage and insect or disease issues. Apple tree borer activity, for instance, is easily spotted.
11. Maintain a mulch around your new tree. What this constitutes is a ring of material beginning from the outer edge of your stone mulch/soil circle and extending at least to the dripline (to where the branches extend). The contents of your mulch will depend on what you have access to. Deciduous trees like fruit bearers will appreciate hardwood tree debris like bark and chips, the older the better. (See other Research entries on the website) Hay, straw, compost, and anything else that will rot are good choices. Several inches thick is a nice start, but don’t be too stingy, all this will become beautiful compost as we lay more mulch down year upon year. Mulching will moderate soil temperature swings, preserve soil moisture and feed our tree in a healthy, gradual fashion. It will also help to suppress excess sod and weed growth which could compete with the tree for water and nutrients. A mulch can look can look as tidy as a golf course or as messy as my son’s room, but it will all lead to the same purpose. We like to lay a fresh coat of hay beneath the trees just before harvest, which allows the fruits to fall into this “pillow” and keep them from bruising. Also makes the perfect recline to munch a crispy apple on.
12. Visiting. Like grandma, your tree will be happy if you visit frequently, and be a bit scornful if neglected. Mulching, for instance will insure against the average drought, but be wise enough to water it if times between rains starts to stretch. A 5 gallon pail once a week isn’t too much trouble and can make a big difference to a young tree. A regular program of observation, nutrition and care will be ongoing, but it really isn’t too terribly difficult. What is important is that you notice if your tree needs a hand. There is an old saying that the best fertilizer is a farmer’s footprints… and it is about the best advice this farmer can give you.