8 DIY Tree Care Tips

Tips from professional arborists for growing and maintaning the happiest trees, from planting to pruning.

It’s easy to take trees, our gentle giants, for granted. And once they show signs of distress, it can be too late to save them. But there are a few things you can do to get them off to the right start and keep them healthy for generations.

Do Your Research

Planting a tree that will be around for decades starts with choosing the right tree. Before doing anything else, research the specific species you want. Weigh criteria such as the mature canopy height/and width, specific soil conditions, and the best kinds for your U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone.

“Planting the right tree in the right spot for the right reasons is a good rule to start with for a healthier tree,” says Kathy Glassey, director of renewable resources at Monster Tree Service.

Plant Pertinently

In places with strong seasonal changes, plant deciduous trees such as maples and oaks in the fall and evergreens in the spring, says Lou Meyer, arborist with Davey Tree Service.

“This gives the deciduous trees the ability to start their root system while the crown is dormant,” Meyer says. “Evergreens will lose water through their leaves (needles) all winter, and if the ground is frozen they cannot replace this loss — new trees will stress hard.”

There’s a method to planting correctly, too. “The number-one mistake we see with trees in the landscape is that they are planted too deep,” Meyer says. He suggests planting the root flare two inches above the soil grade. When you’re finished it should look like bell-bottom jeans, not a telephone pole.

Know the Stakes

If your younger, newly planted trees need to be staked, Glassey says it’s OK if the tree sways slightly in windy conditions.

“This helps with trunk taper development and root stabilization,” she says. “Staking material should be removed by the third year after installation at the latest, or at least adjusted periodically so as not to girdle the trunk or lower branches.”

Water the Right Way

Infrequent, deep watering leads to deeper roots and better developed trees, Meyer says.

“If you water frequently and in short bursts, all the roots will stay at the surface, since that is where the moisture will be,” he says. “Test proper moisture by digging down to finger depth and making a ball of soil with your fingers. If it drips out, you have too much water and if it crumbles, it is too dry.”

Randy Nelson, certified arborist with Monster Tree Service, recommends black soaker hoses or a garden hose on a drip. These will help you water the way the trees like it: A couple of feet out from the trunk, but within the dripline of the tree (from the trunk to the outer edges of the trees branches), rotating evenly around the tree.

Also, Nelson says, note whether your tree will tolerate water spraying on its trunk. Palms won’t.

Mind the Mulch

Follow these guidelines for tree mulch: One to two inches deep, clear of the trunk by three to five inches, spreading out to the dripline or under the tips of the branches. Do not lay mulch against the trunk. “Any [mulch] is better than none, too much is a killer,” Meyer says. “Mix in compost with your mulch for super soils.”

Glassey recommends raking and turning the mulch several times a year to prevent mold growth.

Feed Your Trees

“They are living beings like you or your pets and they need input,” Meyer says. “Most of us live in neighborhoods that have been stripped of the natural topsoil and we remove all debris every fall, so the soil does not get recharged.”

The compost and mulch can help. But if your soil is stripped, you may have to hire a company with a pressurized tanker truck to subterraneously inject the nutrients into the root zones.

Beware Branches

You shouldn’t fear trees falling over, but always keep an eye on them. Occasionally look up for dead or hanging broken branches and remove them. If you’re considering pruning trees yourself, Glassey says to make sure you use the right tools for the task and keep them sharp.

“For younger trees, lower branches should be left on the trunk for several years to help the trunk develop the proper taper,” she says. “Do NOT remove the branch collar when performing a pruning cut. Any larger pruning that needs to be done, other than with hand tools, should be performed by a reputable and professional tree care company.”

Be Prudent with Pesticides

“If you are applying pesticides to control unwanted landscape pests, be sure you know what you are doing and why,” Meyer says. “Many pests are naturally controlled by beneficial bugs that you might be nuking every time you spray. Nature usually finds a balance — a little damage is OK.”

Katie Dohman
Katie Dohman is an award-winning freelance writer who has written about home, design, and lifestyle topics for more than 15 years. Her work has been featured in Artful Living, Midwest Home, Star Tribune, and Teen Vogue, among many others. She is currently living her own how-to story as she and her husband work through a complete gut remodel on their 1921 home—while parenting three tiny tots and dodging their dog and cat, who always seem to be underfoot.