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How to Choose Healthy Trees

Cities without trees would be awful. They would be hot, dark, lifeless and very boring. I love trees, they add colour, interest, a sense of belonging, a sense of scale and are generally just lovely! Trees are often planted for the next or even the next generation, as many of them can take decades to mature. Choosing a healthy tree is very important because it could live for 100 years. If you plant a damaged specimen, down the road, it will cost you money, cause you grief, and set the development of a canopy garden back years.

A healthy tree is one that does not have large wounds, has glossy green leaves, no unusual growth, is sturdy, has well-attached U-shaped branches, no pests attacking it, does not drip fluids or sugars, and generally looks Good. When you look up at the dome, it should block out most of the sky. If you can see large amounts of blue then this could be a sign that it is stressed. Stresses can be due to caterpillars and other wildlife eating the leaves, lack of water due to drought, excess water due to flooding, or caterpillars and insects eating the leaves. There are also many diseases that could affect it or the tree is old – nearing the end of its natural life. Also be sure not to confuse autumn leaf drop with thinning of the canopy of a diseased tree.

When you buy a new tree from a nursery, you have the right to pull the tree out of the display and walk around it, checking it for any broken branches, wounds or other defects. If you find one, don’t buy that particular sample. Also look at how long the plant has been in the pot. If the roots are sticking out the bottom, the potting mix looks dull and lifeless, and there are weeds growing in it, it is very likely that this plant has been in the nursery for more than 12 months and is probably root bound. This is not a good sample to buy.

Rooted trees are where the roots have grown around and rounded into the pot and will continue that way when planted. This is a problem because as they mature there is no root system to anchor them to the ground. A gust of wind can knock it over and deal a lot of damage to you and any buildings it falls on. To avoid this, it is always important to loosen the roots of any potted trees before planting them.

Understanding a tree root system

There are two types of roots – structural and feeder. Structural roots are what anchor the tree to the soil and can be as thick as your forearm or thigh. Feeder roots are sensitive, absorb water and nutrients, are white, live only a day or two, and are constantly replaced. They are located at the end of the root system. They are very easily damaged. Roots generally grow laterally and sometimes you can follow a structural root for many, many meters. You often see it when you’re bushwalking and it’s fun trying to see where it goes. It’s really, really important not to prune any structural roots because you might accidentally create an unstable tree.

How to tell if a seedling is anchored well in the ground.

The Burnley method, devised at Burnley College, Melbourne, is a simple test to see if the seedling (young tree) has established a good root system. This is a test for a tree that has been in the ground for several years. Stand in front of the tree, place both hands on the trunk in front of you and see if you can rock the trunk. If you can feel it moving in the ground and/or see the soil coming up at the base of the trunk, then this tree may have serious problems with its root system. This can be due to disease, damage or insects attacking the roots. If you do nothing and leave the sample as it is, it will develop into a potential hazard.

There are two options, remove it immediately or stake it during the growing season and see if that helps it establish. Remember, you must remove the stakes at the end of the fall. If it is still moving on the ground, then the difficult decision to remove the tree may have been made. Long-term staking actually prevents the trees from establishing a secure root system because the trees depend on the stakes to hold them up and prevents them from moving in the wind and being forced to establish a strong root system. Never leave a tree staked for years and then remove it. The next windy day, it will blow your tree down or, worse, cut it off at the base.

The reason why the tree has not developed a strong root system is mainly because it is root bound, so it is important not to buy trees that have been in a nursery for years. They are not safe trees. Also, when buying a tree from a nursery, look at the ratio of the canopy to the size of the pot. This will determine if the root system is large enough to support the tree when planted. I have seen some trees with huge canopies and very tiny root systems. There is no way the root system can support the weight of the canopy. Don’t buy these top heavy trees, they are an accident waiting to happen.

How to properly plant a tree

Proper planting of a new tree is very important because you want it to develop into a strong and healthy specimen. Firstly, it is important to dig a wide hole rather than a deep hole, (as long as it is as deep as the pot the plant went in) and this is because there is a myth that plant roots grow vertically. In fact most plant roots grow laterally (sideways) as that is where most of the oxygen is. The deeper, the less CO2 there is and therefore the roots cannot respire (taking in oxygen). The majority of tree roots are in the first 1/2 meter of soil where most of the oxygen and moisture is. Many trees die because they are not planted properly. they are planted either too deep or too shallow.

If the trunk is too deep, the roots cannot get oxygen and the trunk will rot. If the roots protrude above the soil, then they will dry out and eventually die. The correct way to plant is to plant at ground level where the trunk and roots meet. And if you’re not happy with the first planting, pull it up and try again. (Careful, do it right away, don’t let several months pass because you might like the tree). As the tree matures, you should be able to see a nice feel at the base of the trunk developing. If you can’t, then it is planted incorrectly.

Tip: To prevent root balling – dig a square hole – it forces the roots to grow laterally.

I don’t believe in putting compost, animal manure or manure in the bottom of the hole because when it decomposes, it causes the tree to sink, causing it to plant deep. Compost and animal manure can also hold in water, making it impotent to the new plant. This causes the root to dry out as it is almost impossible for it to re-wet and die. I believe in putting compost, manure and mulch around the plant when I’m done backfilling with the unadulterated soil I’ve dug out of the hole. For any tree problems, I recommend using a qualified arborist who has the expertise to understand what is going on in the biology and root system of the tree. It may be expensive, but it’s money well spent. If you are not satisfied with the advice then I recommend you get a second opinion. Enjoy your trees.

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