The latest thinking on ecological landscapes. Useful tips to improve our environment

Kim Eierman

Kim Eierman

Founder of EcoBeneficial!

Available for virtual and in-person landscape consulting, talks and classes.

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7 EcoBeneficial Tips for Planting Native Trees this Fall

Fall is a fantastic time to plant many trees.   In most parts of the country, the warm days and cool nights of autumn favor healthy root development before winter arrives.   Choosing appropriate plants and using proper planting methods are critical to your planting success and to the long-term health of the trees.  Here are 7 tips to help you get started:

1) Favor regionally native trees to support your ecosystem.

While many exotic trees are visually appealing, they have not evolved here and accordingly will never be able to support the same number of species that regionally native trees do.  In addition, the habitat value or food value of exotic trees may be far poorer than that of native trees, perhaps to a hungry caterpillar of a native butterfly or to a neo-tropical migrating bird preparing for a long journey south.  Find the beauty in ecological function.

2) If possible, buy trees which have been locally grown.

There is a very good reason to be a locavore with your plant selection AND your produce!   Trees grown in local soils are already adapted to those very conditions.  Red Maples (Acer rubrum), for example, can vary dramatically in their growing conditions.  Say you live in the Northeast with fertile, sandy loam soil and you buy a Red Maple grown in the Southeast in dense clay soil, you, and the tree, will be fighting an uphill battle.  Buy local and locally grown, when you can.

3) Consider buying smaller, containerized trees, in lieu of larger balled & burlapped trees.

When you buy a tree grown in a container, you get the tree’s entire root system, fully intact.  Balled & burlapped (B&B) trees have been dug out of the ground, typically losing approximately 90% of their root system.   It can take a very long time before a tree recovers from the stress of this root loss.   Arborists usually say that for every inch of a tree’s caliper (the diameter), it will take one year for a B&B tree to recover after being planted.   Well-grown containerized trees don’t have this handicap, and can catch up with larger B&B trees in a few years.  And, containerized trees are cheaper and easier to plant.   Don’t forget to tease out the roots when planting to avoid root girdling  (circling roots).  Bare root trees are another good option, but can be harder to find.

4) Think layers when planting trees.

There are ecological layers in almost every ecosystem.  Mimic the nature around you in your local “wild areas” when planting.  In many parts of the U.S.,  we find forests which have layers going from the canopy (the tallest trees) down to the understory (smaller trees) to lower woody layers, down to lower herbaceous (non-woody) layers.   Each layer has an important ecological function.   Mimic nature with the different tree species you select to support your local ecosystem.

5) Do not “fluff up” and greatly amend the soil when planting a tree.

Remember the days when you heard “plant a $5 tree in a $20 hole?”  Those days are over.  Arboriculture (the cultivation of trees and shrubs) has come a long way.  We now know that when you “baby” a tree by greatly amending the soil in the planting hole, you actually encourage the tree’s roots to stay in that hole.  All the really good stuff is in the planting hole, not in the surrounding native soil.   This discourages healthy and expansive root growth, and can make for a very unstable tree.   Using a little compost is fine and there are some organic amendments which can help lessen tree stress.   BioMagic from North Country Organics is one of my favorites – a biostimulant which is a combination of humic acid, seaweed, natural sugars , etc.

6) In colder climates plant trees 6 to 8 weeks before hard frost.

The goal here is to promote as much healthy root development as possible before the ground freezes.  Admittedly, with climate change, it has gotten much harder to predict when a hard frost may come.  In the past two years the Northeast has had huge snow storms in late October!  Do the best you can with timing, and don’t forget to water newly planted trees well until hard frost occurs.  Water deeply and less frequently for best root development.  Research the tree species you are planting so you can provide the optimal conditions for that tree.  A great resource is the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center native plant database.

7) Do not prune a tree at planting time (unless there is dead wood).

This was another old-fashioned practice that has been proven to be harmful.  Unfortunately some landscapers have not gotten the memo.  Planting is actually stressful to a tree (think about the last time you moved to a new home!).  A tree needs time to recover and to acclimate to your native soil.   Cutting healthy branches to reduce the tree’s size, or to reshape the tree, etc. just causes further stress.  It is appropriate at any time to cut dead or diseased wood, but don’t cut healthy wood at planting time.

Now, get out there and plant some trees!!!!

Happy Planting from Kim Eierman at EcoBeneficial!


Photo: White Oak Leaves in Fall Color

Photo credit:  Flickr_Steven Slater


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