Helping New Trees Get Started

Punch list to help grow a newly planted tree


By: Steve Piskor
©2015 Penn State Master Gardener
& Pennsylvania-certified horticulturist

After selecting and planting the perfect tree for your site, I’m sure you hope that it grows into a beautiful specimen for generations to enjoy. To keep your tree thriving and developing into a venerable part of your landscape, be sure to follow these guidelines.

Punch list for newly planted trees

• Keep the root system and surrounding soil well-watered right up until the ground freezes. Water when the top several inches of the root ball are dry. Adequate moisture is a must, especially if we suffer a cold, windy winter with sparse snow cover.

• Staking a newly planted tree is generally not necessary. A tree that can move in the wind develops a sturdier trunk and root system. However, you may need to stake a tree with a minimal root ball, including bare root, that is planted on a windy site. In this case, consult with an arborist or a nursery that specializes in trees for guidance on proper staking.


Tree steadied by two metal stakes

• Prune only dead, damaged or diseased twigs. Foliage is essential for the tree to maximize absorption of carbon dioxide, water and sunlight. The process of photosynthesis converts these substances into carbohydrates and sugars. Do not apply fertilizer to a newly planted tree as excessive fertilizer salts can damage the roots.

• Apply a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch over the root ball, extending to the drip line. This is the ground beneath the outermost branches. Mulch minimizes the chance of injuring tree bark with a lawn mower or weed trimmer, and it keeps foot traffic off of the root area to minimize soil compaction.

• To prevent deer from rubbing young tree bark, employ a bark protector. A good design is one that is made of rigid, black plastic forming an open mesh tube. The open design of the mesh prevents moisture and mildew buildup around the trunk. Be sure the holes in the mesh are small enough to prevent small rodents from reaching the bark.


Severe whitetail deer damage to a young tree

• After the ground freezes routinely check that the root ball has not heaved during freeze-thaw cycles. If the root ball has pushed out of the ground, gently push it back into place to keep the roots from drying out.

Ongoing tree care

• Do routine inspections of your trees to check for insects or disease. Research which pests or diseases most commonly afflict that species by searching the Internet. Publications from your county agricultural extension office are also readily available. An ISA-certified arborist, a local nursery or your Penn State Extension office can also provide a diagnosis and suggested treatments. Never diagnose or treat a tree problem without expert advice.

• If a tree is thriving, there is no need to fertilize. If the tree is showing signs of nutrient deficiency, obtain a soil test to assure that your pH is in the appropriate range. Soil tests will also inform you of deficiencies or excessive amounts of any nutrients.

• Lightly mulch but make certain the root flare is visible as the tree matures.


Mulching “No-No!”

• Determine how long will it take for the root system of your tree to establish so that it can support all the components of the tree above the ground. Here’s a good rule of thumb: For each inch of trunk caliper (measured 6 inches above soil level), it will take one year for the root system to establish itself. So a tree with a 3-inch caliper will require extra attention for the next three years before it is considered an established tree.

Continue to remove dead, damaged and diseased wood and begin to train the tree so that is structurally sound. These techniques will be covered in a series of pruning guidelines in this column in early 2015.

Caring for an established tree

• Once your tree is established, continue to check it for pests and disease.

• Water it deeply during periods of drought.

• Maintain the all-important root flare.

• Protect it from mechanical damage from mowers and trimmers.

• Prevent compaction of the soil from construction equipment.