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Guide for Fall Tree Care

fall_tree_careFall Tree Care

People tend to think of trees as a part of the landscapeas self-sufficient as brooks and almost as permanent as boulders. Yet trees can be quite vulnerable, especially when young. Extension educator David J. Robson likens trees to children and argues that in order for them to get off to a good start, they need the right kind of care, not just for the first few months but for the first few years. Make an investment in your trees, he writes, and hopefully they’ll be around in your old age.

So what do our trees need in order to live long, healthy, and productive lives? Not very much, it turns out: mostly just sufficient water and periodic application of fertilizer. Of course, certain trees will need to be pruned or trimmed, and newly planted trees might need to be staked. But that’s about it, unless a tree becomes diseased. But that’s all the more reason to give your trees good preventive care to keep them as healthy as possible.

Water Deeply and Weekly

Some people water their trees for the first couple months after they’ve been planted and then assume they’ll be fine after that. Actually, trees need to be watered for at least the first couple of years. The amount of water has to be right also: enough to penetrate to the roots, but not so much that the root systems become soggy or even rotten. If your area gets a substantial rainfall once a week, that should be sufficient, but if not, water your trees deeply on weeks when it has been dry. Also, try to get out and give your trees a last fall watering before that first freeze occurs, especially if they are conifers.

Established trees should be watered to a depth of six to eight inches around the perimeter of the thickest part of the root zone; newly planted trees need this kind of deep watering throughout the entire root zone. Either way, it amounts to a lot of water, especially considering that established trees have root zones that extend 1 1/2 to 3 times beyond the tree’s canopy.

One way to conserve water is to drive a few watering stakes around the perimeter of the canopy. These will deliver water directly to the tree roots without any being lost to run-off or evaporation. Watering stakes also improve soil aeration and enable fertilizer to penetrate deeply, making for stronger, healthier roots. You’ll find that you’ll be able to water less often for shorter amounts of time.

Fertilize Around the Root Zone

Fall is an excellent time to fertilize your trees. Professional arborists devise a fertilizer application schedule based on how quickly a tree is going, but it’s safe to say that your trees will probably need fertilizing in the fall, unless they are located in a forest where leaves and other organic matter are decomposing around them, or on a lawn that is being fertilized two or three times a year. In the former case, Mother Nature will provide the fertilizer, in that latter case, your trees will soak up enough lawn fertilizer to nourish them.

The procedure for fertilizing a tree is pretty straightforward: you just need a 3/4 inch piece of rebar at least two feet long, a heavy hammer, and a cup. Place the bar down at a point along the drip line of the tree and hammer it to a depth of about 18 inches. Pull it out, and continue making holes every three feet around the entire perimeter of the tree. After you’ve done that, move three feet inward and do the same thing; then move six feet outward and repeat the procedure once again. Finally pour about six ounces of fertilizer into each hole.

tree_toneThe tree fertilizer we recommend is the tried-and-true Tree Tone, made by Espoma, a company that has been producing organic fertilizers for eighty years. Espoma also makes fertilizer especially formulated for specific types of trees: both their Citrus Tone and Palm Tone are excellent.

Mulch To Keep Weeds Down

Mulching should be part of your fertilizing efforts: spread a doughnut of mulch six inches from each tree trunk extending out a couple of feet. Besides enriching the soil, mulch will keep weeds to a minimum and discourage the growth of fungi and other sources of disease.

The easiest source of mulch for tree owners are the fallen leaves themselves. Rake them up, or use a lawn sweeper,  and then run your lawnmower through the pile to shred them. You can also put them in a garbage pail and use a week whacker to break them up. Then mix them with grass clippings, shredded bark, wood chips, pine needles, or other compost. Put down a few layers of newspaper (no color print) and then apply the mulch on top. Repeat this procedure in the spring and summer.

Mulch_MatIf you want to avoid this step and opt for a more manicured look, try a mulch mat. Made from recycled rubber, these mats surround the tree trunk and resemble hardwood mulch. Like organic mulch, they impede weed growth and yet allow water and nutrients to pass through. Yet they will not be damaged by lawn mowers or trimmers. In fact, you can mow right over them. The only care they need is to be rotated a quarter turn once or twice a year.

Some people have environmental concerns over the use of ground coverings such as synthetic turf, but mulch mats will not shed any tiny pellets or other matter than could mix with your soil and contaminate it. They are all of one piece, and are so durable that they hold up for ten years or more. In any case, I have used them on my own trees, and would never want to do without them.

Protect Your Young Trees from Animals and Machines

If there’s a chance your young trees or shrubs might get damaged by animals or machinery, surround them with some protective material. Nowadays, lightweight products such as tree guards and Gardeneer® Tree Guard Protective Wrap are available that have replaced the wire mesh and hardwire cloth of the past. Wrapping the trunk with a commercial tree wrap such as Clark’s Tree Wrap will prevent sunscald. Put the wrap on in the fall and remove it in the spring after the last frost. Wraps should only be used on young trees.

Give Your Back A Rest

deluxe_sweeperFinally, we’d like to tell you more about the leaf sweeper we mentioned in passing earlier, because it’s such a unique and interesting new product. For generations, the rake has been the tool of choice for tree owners in the fall, and there’s certainly something to be said for getting the exercise. But raking can become a burden to elders, as well as to new parents and busy career folks and anyone who just doesn’t have the time to get out there and do it.

A leaf sweeper takes the hassle out of raking: you just push it over your lawn and it collects the leaves automatically into a bag. When the bag is full, you dump it, and then continue pushing it around your lawn, just like an old-fashioned push lawnmower, but easier. The only sounds you’ll hear will be the crunching of the leaves and the movement of the mechanical parts. It also works on driveways, sidewalks, and parking lots.

3 Responses to “Guide for Fall Tree Care”

  1. […] Another fine project for the fall is to give your trees some TLC. To learn how to do this, please refer to our Guide to Fall Tree Care. […]

  2. Diane says:

    Does the Guide to Fall Tree Care apply to small trees, such as Crape Myrtle – mine is newly planted and only about 2-1/2′ tall? What about newly planted shrubs such as Clethera Sweet Spire? I’m in zone 6B, should the deep watering continue as long as ground is not frozen or be stopped when dormancy sets in? Thank you.

  3. jstutzman says:

    Both will benefit from frequent waterings. It should be continued up until the ground starts freezing. Good luck with your plants!

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