Taking Care of Trees: The Basics of Tree Care in the Garden

Just getting into gardening? If you are planning on adding some greenery and shade to your yard in the form of new trees, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with tree care basics first.

Taking extra care of your trees in the first few years of a new tree’s life is vital and will have an impact on your tree’s health, shape, and growth in the future. A tree that receives good care in its first few years may even live longer than one which was neglected.

Planting a Tree Basics

couple planting a new tree sapling

1. Always dig a hole that will provide plenty of space. Usually, it should be about twice as wide as the rootball, but no deeper. The only exception is when you are trying to plant a tree in compacted soil or clay.

2. When you place your tree inside the hole you dug, you can lay a measuring stick across it to check the depth and size.

3. If there is a metal basket or plastic burlap around the root ball, get rid of it. You do not have to remove the natural burlap. Do untie the rope which is securing it. Also, make sure no burlap is above ground.

4. When you fill in the hole, use the same soil you removed. Do not amend the backfill. Add some water when you are at the two-thirds full point, then add the rest. Keep the tree upright and firm up the ground with your foot.

5. Add mulch when you’re done to discourage weeds but don’t overdo it.

6. Planting a barefoot seedling? Soak the roots in a bucket of water for up to a day. Dig a hole wide enough for the roots to spread out. Snip away broken roots or those that are extra-long. Backfill with the same soil.

How to Care For a New Tree

New trees need sufficient water, nutrients, and sunlight to stay healthy. They also benefit from regular mulching, pruning, and maintenance as they grow from a young sapling to a mature full-grown tree. Follow these tree care tips to be sure your newly planted tree gets off to a good start.

watering new trees
Keep your newly planted tree well-watered.

Watering Your Newly Planted Tree

Just after planting, water thoroughly to let the soil settle around the tree’s roots. Continue to monitor the water your tree receives especially during the first six months.

If there is a lack of rainfall during the first growing season for a new tree, water it every 7-10 days. Young trees should receive roughly 25 gallons of water each week, which is equivalent to 1.5 inches of rainfall.

Use techniques that prevent runoff. For example, punch holes in the bottom of a five-gallon bucket and place it next to the base of your tree. Fill it up five times a week, and let it drain into the soil.

For mature trees, research and find out exactly how much and how often to water your trees. There are different guidelines for different trees. A general rule of thumb is to water monthly. Never let your trees succumb to drought.

Mulching to Retain Moisture & Limit Weed Growth

man mulching around the trunk with bark chips
  • Mulching is one of the best natural methods for controlling the growth of grass and weeds. It can help you to keep the soil around your tree moist and help conserve water.
  • Good choices for mulch include shredded bark, wood chips and compost made from leaves.
  • Avoid techniques like the “volcano mulching” technique.  In other words, do not pile mulch up around your tree trunk. If you do this, you can actually kill your tree. The roots can rot, you can mess up the pH of the soil, and you can also develop pest problems.
  • Instead, stick with the 3-3-3 rule. This means you should use around 3 inches of mulch and place it in a 3-foot ring around the trunk, leaving a 3-inch space. The resulting shape will resemble a donut.
  • The mulch not only helps to keep the soil moist but will also prevent yard tools like weed whackers from damaging your tree.

Pruning a Tree

man pruning a tree with loppers
  • Before pruning any tree, sanitize your tools. This includes when you are moving from one tree to another.
  • Cut away dead branches as well as those that have grown at angles that may be unhealthy to the tree. There are specific guidelines for different types of trees; do your research. You can do light pruning at any time of the year.
  • Winter pruning should be done after the worst of the cold has passed. For summer pruning, wait until the main growing season is over. Never prune in autumn; the risk of fungal infection is heightened during this season.
  • Taller branches can be trimmed with a pole saw.
  • Make sure you never cut away more than a quarter of your tree’s living crown during any one season.
  • Prune dead or diseased branches just at the end of the branch collar where the growth begins. This is the raised portion at the base of the tree’s branch. Never cut into the branch collar, since you can damage the tree trunk and invite pests or disease.
  • Be on the lookout for new shoots growing out from the base of the trunk. Trim these shoots otherwise they may leach water and nutrients from the main branches.
  • Familiarize yourself with the right way to cut. It is best to look at visual diagrams to get a feel for what you should and should not be doing.

When Should You Remove a Tree?

When a tree becomes diseased or begins to die, you may sometimes actually want to keep it. If it does not pose a falling hazard, is not a danger to other trees around it, and is serving some function (i.e. shade or home for woodpeckers), you may want to maintain it.

woodpecker in tree
Even older or dead trees can provide shelter and food for visiting birds.

In other circumstances, however, you may want to remove it. Trees that are weak and prone to breakage pose a hazard to property, people, and animals. Those with shallow roots can cause lawn damage.

Trees infested by disease or insects may pass on their infestations to neighboring trees. Trees that are 50% or more damaged usually should be removed.

tree removal - man sawing falling tree into sections
Cutting down a tree is a big project

Check trunks for signs of damage like vertical cracks and seams. These may suggest the tree is decaying from within. This kind of damage may heal if the area is less than a quarter of the trunk’s circumference. Otherwise, it usually means the tree needs to be removed.

Hollow trunks are okay up to a point unless they compromise structural integrity. Large dead branches need to be removed. If there are too many, the entire tree may have to go. One more consideration is whether removing the tree will help others around it to grow.

If you do decide to cut down a tree, be forewarned that removing a tree stump is very tricky. Many people leave them in their yards for this reason. There are a few different manual techniques for removal and disposal. If you pay someone else to do it, it will cost you.

Of course, if you follow all the tips and tricks in this article for caring for your young trees, you can prevent many of the problems which would cause you to have to remove them when they get older. Tend to their basic needs, and they should thrive over the decades to come!

happy man caring for his trees by clipping branch with loppers
Proper tree care will extend the life of your trees.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who takes care of trees?

An arborist is skilled in the planting and maintenance of trees, bushes, and shrubs. You can hire a certified arborist or a tree surgeon if you need help treating your trees for disease or insect problems. Tree service companies can also assist in the trimming, removal, and maintenance of the trees on your property.

How can we keep trees healthy?

The best way to keep your tree healthy is to monitor it and correct any problems before they escalate. Keep your tree well-watered with a good layer of mulch around the base. Watch for pests or signs of disease and provide occasional pruning to remove dead or diseased branches.

How often do you water a new tree?

In the first month of growth, water your new tree at least weekly. You can move to every other week for the next 6 months to a year. If in doubt, check 4-6 inches below the soil to see if the soil is damp. If it is dry, your tree needs more water.

trees in garden design - background of full grown trees with garden in front next to barn shed

Trees are an important part of designing your overall landscape. They provide structure for the backyard, shade for our homes and gardens, and shelter and food sources for wildlife.

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