“He who plants a tree, plants hope. “-Lucy Larcon
Arbor Day is the celebration of trees and their importance in our lives; it is also a time to think about what we can do for trees and the world in which we live.
The first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska on April 10, 1872. J. Sterling Morton was a pioneer and journalist and championed the idea of a “tree planting” holiday in the Nebraska Territory. In the 1800’s, the plains had been cleared for building materials, fuel and farming. The pioneers quickly warmed up to the idea of planting trees because trees reminded them of the homes they left in the east, and they needed windbreaks to reduce soil erosion and shade from the hot sun. Morton’s passion for trees was in large part due to being a native of Michigan. He missed the wide variety of vibrant green trees he grew up with. He eventually became the editor of Nebraska’s first newspaper and utilized his position to inform others about agricultural information and the need for trees. In January 1872, he proposed an annual tree planting holiday in to be held in April to the State Board of Agriculture, advocating tree planting by individuals and civic organizations for the public good. Prizes were even given to counties and individuals for the proper planting of the most trees. Over one million trees were planted that first Arbor Day. Today, the most common date of state observance for Arbor Day is the last Friday in April. While there are many ways to celebrate Arbor Day, perhaps the best way is to plant a tree in your own yard. Here are some tips to consider before planting.
- Choose the right tree for you. Do some research before heading out to your local garden center. You want a tree that will grow well in your hardiness zone (that’s zone 6 here in West Michigan). You also need to be cognizant of your soil conditions, sun exposure, and the amount of moisture in the area you are considering. Avoid planting a tree that will drop pods or berries on your lawn if you would find the clean-up a nuisance. Always plant as if the tree were full grown. Check out the tag to determine mature height and width and consider the shade pattern it will create. Tree branches and roots need space, so avoid planting too close to the house or a walkway, and avoid power lines. And lastly, plant with your view in mind, as well as curb appeal when choosing the location for your new tree.
- It’s a good idea to call 811 to have your underground utility line marked before you start digging. It’s free, and can save you from inadvertently causing a power failure, or worse, an injury.
- Dig the right kind of hole. It should be three to five times the diameter of the root-ball and in a saucer shape. This will allow the roots to easily penetrate the softened backfill and properly anchor the tree. If you’re planting in clay or wet soil, use a garden fork or your spade to roughen the bottom and sides of the planting hole. If your soil is too smooth and compacted, water will not be able to pass easily through the soil, which can prevent the roots from digging in.
- Free the roots before planting. Break up the tightly wound root-ball and fan out the roots. Be careful not to pull too hard, you don’t want to break them. Pulling the root-ball apart encourages the roots to expand into the surrounding soil. Avoid picking up the tree by the trunk, instead, support it underneath or from the side of the root ball to avoid damage. Set the tree in the center of the hole you dug, keeping the root collar about one inch above ground level.
- Backfill with the dirt you took out of the hole to begin with, using a spade. Keep the tree in place at the proper depth and straight up and down as you fill in the soil evenly around the roots. Once you have the hole filled in halfway, water around the root and continue with the soil until the hole is filled in completely and the tree is secure. Mulch to hold moisture and prevent weeds, making a circle of at least three feet in diameter and two to four inches deep. It’s a good idea to keep the mulch a few inches away from the trunk to avoid disease, rot, and pest problems that can harm the tree. Consider leaving a circular area around your new tree to create a flower bed. It acts as a buffer zone for lawn mowers and trimmers, and adds color and texture.
- Young trees can be vulnerable. Protect the trunks of young trees and bushes from lawn trimmers and animals by using 6-in. flexible plastic drainage pipe. Cut a short piece of pipe, split it along its length, and wrap it around the young tree.
- And finally, watering. It is imperative to water your new tree until the root system is well established. Water too little, and the tree will die. Overwatering, especially in clay soil, may lead to root rot, which can also cause a new tree’s demise. So how do you know what the right amount of water is? That depends on a few factors, including weather conditions, your soil and the planting site. A reliable method for determining when to water is to utilize a popsicle stick (a finger will work just as well). Push the stick 3 inches into the ground. Ideally, the soil should be damp down 3 inches. If so, you’re giving it enough water. If not, water once or twice a day—whatever is necessary to keep the soil damp but not saturated around the root-ball. Allow the soil’s surface to begin to dry out between watering. The first few weeks after planting, you may need to water every few days. After that, longer, deeper, less frequent watering is best to create deep roots that will resist drought and wind.
Trees are everywhere—in our backyards, neighborhoods, cities, farms and forests; they connect us to our past and to our future. Each tree planted is an enduring legacy that will clean our air, soil and water for years to come. They provide a shady spot to cool off, a perfect location to enjoy a summer picnic, or perhaps a future location for a tree house.
Arbor Day is Friday, April 28th. What kind of tree will you be planting this year?