Gardening Tips: Planting Trees

Editor’s NoteThe Spectator is reaching into Michelle Smith’s gardening column archive for some weekly advice that is as relevant now as when it was first written in May 2017.


What to do this week

Okay, up off the couch! It’s time to plant trees.

What’s that? It’s cold and rainy and the trees aren’t even leafing out yet, you whine? Perfect! The trees are still sleeping, they’ll barely suffer transplant shock. Yeah, I know you’re out of shape. Did you really need all those storm chips? Time to work off that gut a bit – and remember your blood pressure. A little gardening is good for what ails you. Besides, would you rather work in rain or black flies? I thought so. Now get moving.

Semi-dwarf apple trees. (Photo via iowaorchard

Semi-dwarf apple trees. (Photo via iowaorchard)

Did you order your trees from a good nursery like I told you? Check them over to make sure the twigs and buds are healthy and plump. If some of the small branches look a bit wrinkled, it is a sign they got dehydrated at some point. Not good! If you plan to pick up trees at a garden center, look for the same signs of good health. It is counter-intuitive, but go for smaller trees – large trees get set back more when planted and are often root-bound leftovers from last year. If they are already leafing out and flowering, beware! It can be a sign that they were stressed into breaking dormancy early.

The old saying about it being better to plant a one-dollar tree in a five-dollar hole than a five-dollar tree in a one-dollar hole is more than an existential statement about the price of nothing. If you do this right, the tree will outlive you by many years. To start with, dig the holes before you take the trees out of their pots or bags or cellar. Even on a drizzly day, the small rootlets can dry out fast and then the tree has to grow them all over again.

For a one-year whip, apple, pear or such, dig the hole three feet or one meter across, and half as deep. Peel off the sod and set it aside. Poke around in the hole with your fork to loosen the soil. Dig in some compost – not too much or too rich or your baby tree will put on too much lush growth to harden off properly before next winter. If your soil is light and sandy – rare for Cape Breton, but it does happen – back-fill the hole a little below grade to catch precious moisture. If it is heavier clay, build it up a bit to make sure the roots don’t get their feet too wet.

If these are fruit trees, be sure to have the graft union above the soil. The tree will often have a root larger than the rest. Be sure to place it so that, as the tree grows, this root will brace it against the prevailing wind. My main wind is from west to east, so I put this root on the east side of the tree.

If you followed my advice and planted semi-dwarf trees, good for you. The tree will be more wind-firm and live longer. But even if you planted dwarfing trees, they will benefit from staking the first year or two as they get established. I don’t always get to this but I always regret it.

I generally up-end the sod and place it around the dug area, taking out as much quackgrass as I can. To discourage bugs and weeds, and keep the grass from growing up and creating little mouse houses around the trunks in the fall, put a layer of small rocks or pea gravel around the tree. Water it well if the ground is dry and be sure to water thoroughly about once a week for the first year.

If you don’t remember how many storm chips you ate, don’t plant all your trees at once, but keep at it. Early morning or evening is best. At the end of the day, you’ll have earned your rest.


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Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.