How to Make a Shade Tree Thrive

Tips for successfully growing a shade tree.

Planting a potted tree

Shade trees need lots of water but not all at one time. Rule of thumb: Stick your finger in the soil near the tree; if saturated, don’t water.

I spent part of last weekend digging out two-year-old birch clumps that didn’t survive the conditions in our backyard. It was disheartening, but I guess on the upside, a good learning experience. The first lesson I learned: Wishful thinking isn’t enough to grow trees. My wife and I love birch clumps, but obviously they don’t love our yard. So if you want a shade tree to flourish, choose one that is sure to grow in your soil and moisture conditions.

Thinking back on the planting and care of the birch clumps, I wasn’t sure I had followed all of my own advice. So before I planted the new trees, I reread an article I wrote several years ago about how to plant a shade tree. Here are the key points for success in planting a new shade tree—points that I’m going to follow this time:

1) Don’t plant the tree too deep. At the base of the trunk, near the roots, is a spot where the trunk is enlarged. This is called the trunk flare. Plant the tree so the top of the trunk flare is above the soil level.

2) Slice encircling roots. If, after removing the root ball from the pot or burlap ball, you see that the roots are wrapping around the root ball, slice them vertically with a utility knife. This will help prevent the roots from strangling the plant later.

3)Refill the hole with the same soil you removed. Surrounding your tree with compost or enriched soil will only encourage the roots to stay close to the tree.

4)Water frequently, but with less water. Here’s the formula. Measure the diameter of the trunk and multiply by 2 to arrive at the number of gallons of water to use. Water every day with this amount for the first two weeks. Then water every two or three days for the next two months. After that, water once or twice a week for the next 12 to 18 months. Use less water and water less often if you have soil that drains poorly. Overwatering is harmful too. A simple test is to simply stick your finger into the soil near the tree. If it’s saturated, don’t water.

If you have clay soil, ask your nursery for help. There are special planting and watering methods you should follow to ensure successful shade tree planting in clay soil.

— Jeff Gorton, Associate Editor

Of course, you don’t have to wait for a tree to grow to get backyard shade. For projects that will give you backyard shade right away, check out these links:

How to Build a Pergola

How to Shade Your Deck or Patio

How to Build an Outdoor Living Room

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