Planting Trees and Memories

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In most parts of the country, fall is the perfect time to plant trees and shrubs. The soil is still warm enough for roots to become established before winter sets in, but deciduous trees and shrubs have dropped their leaves and require no energy from the roots for growth. Plant a tree with a child and you're likely also to seed a fond memory that will grow into a deep connection with the tree as both child and tree mature.

There are good reasons to grow trees and shrubs. They provide habitat for birds and other wildlife (especially if you plant native trees); they help to offset global warming and pollution; and they provide shade, flowers, fruit, and beauty for us. The key is to find the right tree or shrub for your location, and kids love helping with that. Invite older children to help you research trees that fit your criteria -- hardiness, size, shape, and ornamental qualities -- on the Internet. Once you've settled on a species, younger kids will have fun accompanying you on a 'field trip' to the garden center or nursery to select the actual tree. They might even want to name it!

When purchasing a tree or shrub, it's usually best to select a smaller specimen. It will have experienced less transplant shock and, once planted in your yard, will recover and grow faster than a large nursery specimen. Consider finding a tree the height of your child or grandchild. You'll be able to measure and compare the growth of both every year.

Tree-planting tips to success:

  1. Select the right tree. Most trees need a full-sun location with well-drained soil (the exception is shade-tolerant plants, such as rhododendrons). Be sure your site is away from overhead or underground power lines. Next, determine the tree's ultimate height and spread and make sure it's hardy in your area. Also consider its flowering time and color, if it fruits, and if it will need special pruning and care.
  2. Check branch angles and roots. At the nursery, select trees and shrubs with good branch angles and few, if any, broken or diseased branches. Look carefully at the roots of container plants to be sure they aren't root bound. Healthy roots will be white. If the roots encircle the container a little, the plant is still a good purchase. Select another tree if the root ball is all roots and almost no soil, and the roots are pale brown in color. If you buy a tree or shrub with a root ball wrapped in burlap, make sure the tree and root ball move together when you rock them. This means the roots are clinging well to the soil and the tree will transplant better.
  3. Prepare the site. At home, dig a hole three times as wide and as deep as the root ball. Unless the soil is very poor, don't amend it with fertilizer or anything else. Anything you add to the soil to 'help' the tree simply invites the roots to stay in your hole and not venture into the native soil. Ultimately this makes for a weaker plant.
  4. Plant the tree. Remove the container, burlap, and string, depending on the type of plant you purchased. Loosen the roots of container plants with your hand or a trowel so they aren't encircling the root ball. Set the tree in the hole and start back-filling the soil. Add water to the hole as you add the soil to remove any air pockets. Place a 2- to 4-inch-thick layer of bark mulch around the base of the tree or shrub, being careful to keep the mulch away from the plant's trunk to avoid crown rot.
  5. Water. Keep the tree or shrub well watered this fall.

Don't forget to name the tree! For a great winter project, help your child make a weatherproof plant sign with the tree's botanical name, its common name, and the name your child chose for it. Hold a special naming ceremony in spring as you place the plant tag in the ground near the tree.

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