How to Care for A Young Tree

Father and Son Planting a Young Tree Together

Congratulations, you’ve brought home a brand new tree from Patuxent Nursery! Now what? What are the best practices for new tree care?

We want to ensure that your new tree will get a good head start in life so that you can enjoy it for years and years to come. The first 3 to 4 years are some of the most important years for young trees. So, we’ve compiled a list of the best advice our horticultural experts have to offer. This is our advice on how to best take care of your brand new tree.

Diagram planning where to place a tree

Placement

One of the most important steps when planting your new tree is placement – both in your yard and in the ground. When choosing a location, make sure that you account for the full breadth of the tree when it reaches maturity. Will it stay small and compact next to your fence, or will the roots start to break and move your fence line over time?

Typically, most trees, even dwarf trees, do best with a bare minimum distance of 10 to 20 feet away from any buildings, utility boxes, fencelines, or other large trees. Larger trees may need up to 30 feet or more in every direction because of how large their root system will go.

Height is also an important consideration. Are there any other branches from older trees, or power lines above your planting site? Some trees will stay low enough that these are not an issue, but many privacy trees and native trees grow very tall and will need trimming if they are too close to power lines.

Underground lines can also cause major issues. If you are unsure how deep your pipes or utility lines are, there are public resources available to help determine safe planting areas. Here is a helpful guide to avoid utility conflicts.

Consider how much sun the tree will receive in your spot of choice. Will it get at least 6 to 8 hours of sun? If not, is this a shade-tolerant tree?

Ok, now that you’re ready to plant, depth is very important. Do Not Plant Your Young Tree Too Deep!! This is extremely important. You should always be able to see the top of the soil it arrived in when you are done planting, before you apply mulch. This will ensure that the tree stays at the same depth in soil that it is accustomed to during its first years of life at the nursery.

Man Trimming Tree Away from Power Lines

Planting

We recommend planting your tree either in the early spring or in early fall – these are ideal times for soil conditions and for the natural cycle of a tree.

To plant your tree, dig a hole two to three times wider than the container it arrived in, but the same depth. You can even use the container to measure your hole and stop digging down once the top of the container is level with the ground. Then, mix any starter fertilizer, compost, or any other soil amendments into the native soil you removed. You’ll want your soil mixture to retain the right amount of water and nutrients while still providing adequate drainage.

Gently remove your tree from its container, or unwrap the root ball from the burlap. Massage sides and bottom of the roots gently so that the tree roots are not compacted.

Position your tree so that the soil it arrives in is level with the ground, and then backfill the hole underneath the roots with your backfilled soil mixture. It helps to have a friend or family member hold the tree up in place while you backfill. They can also help ensure your tree is planted straight. Pat the soil gently as you go.

Once the tree is steady in place, you can attach any tree stands or support systems. Many trees do not need tree stakes after their first season – moving in the wind can actually help encourage strong root support to grow. Protect the bark of the young trunk by wrapping any cords from the tree stand with a protective barrier, like a cut-up piece of old garden hose for example.

Then, cover the area with mulch. Keep your layer of mulch level, about 2 to 3 inches thick. Also, make sure your mulch is not touching the trunk – for healthy growth, mulch should stay 3 or 4 inches away from the trunk of your new tree. Organic matter such as wood chips works well to retain water and provide nutrients to the soil.

planting a plant but don't plant too deep

Irrigation

Young trees need a regular watering schedule, especially with the first 6 to 8 months of being planted. Depending on the size of your tree when you plant it, it may need more than the other plants in your garden.

A great way to make sure your tree is getting a good, deep watering a few times a week is to use a Water Gator bag – you fill the bag up all the way once or twice a week, and it slowly drips water into the soil at just the right spot for a young tree. If you have a long line of trees, an irrigation hose may work better for you. Sprinkler systems may not water deep enough.

Wait to water the tree again until the first few inches of soil are dry to the touch. Overwatering a young tree can sometimes be even worse than underwatering it since the roots can drown or develop root rot. Different areas will have different rates of drainage, so watch and see how quickly your soil dries after watering your garden. Mulch will help immensely with water retention, helping to reduce the number of times you need to water per week.

Remember, less frequent waterings that go deep into the soil are better than watering a little bit every day. As your tree grows, you’ll need to water it less and less frequently, until it only needs water during droughts or especially hot weather.

water gator bag makes watering young tree much easier

Pruning and Pest Control

Early in life, you should only need to prune trees in order to remove dead limbs and prevent any spread of disease. Not until trees are much older will you need to worry about pruning for airflow or shaping. Pruning is best done during dormancy for most trees, just before spring growth begins. Pruning in the coldest part of winter or during the height of the growing season can both cause issues for your young tree.

If pruning young fruit trees, try just removing the flowers or excess fruits for the first few years in order to protect the young tree while still encouraging a good harvest.

If you do need to prune for health reasons, make sure there is always a healthy leader branch – this is the branch at the very top of the tree that guides the tree to grow straight and tall. Some trees will not grow tall if the leader is damaged. If you have to remove the leader, trim with clean pruning shears at a sharp 45* angle just above another branch that can become the new leader.

If you are concerned about deer or other animals eating the bark, you can encircle the area immediately around the tree with chicken wire. This wire guard can be wrapped in a light colored material in the winter to bounce light away from the bark and prevent winter splitting, but only do so if you are worried about extreme weather changes – wraps can be a welcome home for pests. Keep this protective wire guard a few inches away from the trunk.

Keep a watchful eye out for common pests – borers, scale, aphids, caterpillars, spider mites, and other critters or fungi that will eat your young tree from the inside out. If you see anything, remove them physically and spray the leaves judiciously with Neem Oil or other organic pest control materials – Neem Oil and horticultural oil works by suffocating pests.

Remove weeds and suckers. Weeds are literally any plant you don’t want near your tree – even if there are flowering perennials, lawn grass or other garden staples that have spread too close to your new tree, they can sap nutrients as much as weeds can – move them to other parts of your garden and pull up grass that is too close (within 6 – 12 inches) to the trunk for the first few years. Suckers are the branches that grow too low to be viable branches – your young tree will send resources to those ineffective suckers until you remove them.

Don’t be too concerned if there is some mild transplant shock within the first few weeks of planting – trees don’t like to move! They may drop some leaves or show slowed growth, but this should only last for a little while. If your tree does not look like it is thriving in its new home, call our customer service team so we can help determine what might be happening and help you anyway we can.

spraying young tree for pests

Any other tips or tricks you know? Comment below and share what has worked for you when planting a new tree!

parent and child caring for a young tree

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