Published in the Toronto Star – September 16, 2017
I was hiking in Killarney Provincial Park, with my son Ben, this summer, when it hit me: all my attempts to plant trees cannot compete with Mother Nature. There she was, growing birch and cedars out of sheer rock at an 80 degree angle. How on earth did she manage to get her trees to grow without earth when we mortals have our problems when planting in rich soil?
A lifetime of tree planting and tree hugging has taught me a thing or two about tree planting.
This coming Wednesday, September 27th is ‘National Tree Day’ in Canada. The perfect time to create a living legacy in your own yard. Here is how to ensure the best possible chances for tree planting success:
- Choose young trees. We are always anxious to get on with it. Whether we are ordering lunch or planting a tree, we are not very good at waiting. When shopping for a tree look for a young, vigorous specimen. The keyword here is ‘vigorous’, as in, ‘ready to go’. Young trees have young roots that are in the pot when you buy the tree. When you buy a large tree, usually wrapped in burlap and placed in a wire basket, many of the young, fibrous feeding roots are still in the ground on the nursery farm. Young trees want to put down roots and get growing. They usually catch up and surpass the growth of a larger tree within a few years.
- Plant high. Here in Southern Ontario, we live in the clay-belt. Our soil is limestone based and alkaline. There are some sandy spots near the lake but most of us have to deal with clay based loam or solid clay. Clay soil does not drain efficiently. If you dig a hole and drop a tree into it, water will sit in it like a breakfast bowl, which is poor policy for tree planting.
I plant all of the trees in my 10-acre garden about 50 to 70 cm above grade and mound quality soil up to the ‘flare’ of the tree. Never higher. The root flare is where the main trunk of a tree meets the roots. If you cover up the trunk of the tree with soil you risk smothering it and likely causing a slow death. Don’t bury the trunk.
- I mentioned ‘quality soil’. This can mean different things but for the most part, it means this: well drained, nutrient rich, organic and lots of it. I use a combination of 70% well composted cattle manure/mushroom compost and 30% sharp sand. Composted manure provides all the nutrients needed to support tree-life. No need for chemical fertilizers. The sand provides drainage, as very few trees enjoy having wet feet. Sharp sand is sometimes called ‘builders’ or ‘play’ sand, as in the stuff that you put in a sandbox. But it is NOT beach sand, which is too fine for water to flow through freely.
A reminder: use lots of new soil. For a 2 metre high maple tree, you should use 4 to 6 bags of quality ‘triple’ mix or ‘garden soil’.
- Stake it. It will take up to 5 years for your new tree to put down roots and anchor itself into it’s new home. A tree stake on the north or west side will help to hold it upright in stiff winds until the day comes when it can support itself.
- Right tree, right place. Think about the location of your new tree and consider the space that it will take up eventually. 20 or 30 years seems like a long time away and you may not even care what your tree will look like at that time. This is a service to future home owners. And you will be amazed at how quickly a tree can fill in the space that you allow for it, even a small tree like an ivory silk lilac.
- Go for ‘quality’. There is a golf course near my home that was established just over 50 years ago. The founding-fathers invested in hundreds of fast growing poplars, willows and soft maples when they designed the course. No doubt they wanted the shade and cover in a hurry. Trouble is, they are cutting those trees down now and the course is looking rather bare. Had the first members of the club planted quality sugar maples, lindens, oaks, beech and other hardwood trees, they would be enjoying an amazing canopy of shade that would last for up to 300 years.
And at the end of the day, that is the nut of it, isn’t it?
We plant trees not for ourselves but for our grand children and theirs as well. It is an unselfish act that pays untold dividends down the road in the form of oxygen, a cooler environment, slower street traffic, enhanced real estate values and an altogether nicer place to live, work and play.
If you can’t plant a tree on your own property, consider having one planted on the Highway of Heroes by donating. We are planting 117,000 on the 401 right of way, one for each of Canada’s war dead since Confederation. Details at http://hohtribute.ca/.
Happy National Tree Day.