No Way You’re Gonna Straighten That!

IMG_3240.JPGIt is hysterical that folks think they can straighten trees this way–simply not possible! Those t-posts are too weak and that tree would need massive 4 x 4 posts planted at least 2 ft into the ground. Heavy gauge wires would be required, too. Save yourself the trouble. Save yourself from looking like an idiot!

It drives me nuts at how many new landscape plantings have leaning or crooked trees, but I know why it’s happening, for two reasons.  First, in commercial plantings, where big landscape installers do the planting, they use heavy equipment with huge augers, and the root ball has “way too much room” in that hole. Then their workers backfill the holes without tamping/firming the soil around the root ball. Thus, the tree is free to flop around in the wind. It is especially bad with evergreens because they present considerably greater wind resistance than deciduous trees.

Now you’re thinking, “OK, Jeff, what should I do if my tree is leaning?” Well, first of all, when you plant a new deciduous tree or evergreen, DO NOT use “great soil” to backfill the hole. Use your native soil, or amend it just slightly to improve it; avoid using that fabulous “bagged dirt” with peat, compost, vermiculite, etc. That stuff won’t compact and your tree will flop in the wind. If you have nothing but rocky soil, just use plain ‘ole bagged topsoil as backfill but use as many of the clay crumbs as you can.

Reason 2 for crooked trees, for the average Joe. What I will say next is sure to piss off the PROS, like the university extension folks, the master gardeners at MoBot, and the published authors–DO NOT make your hole “twice as wide” as the root ball. This will give you a floppy tree for sure. Dig the hole about 1 to 2 inches more shallow than the root ball because you do not want the crown of the plant to be lower than grade (potential rotting issues). Dig the hole only 6 to 8 inches wider than the root ball, just wide enough to use your foot on all sides to tamp the soil back into the bottom third to half of the root ball. As you backfill the hole, continually insure that your tree is straight on ALL views. Make sure the more critical spouse is present during planting, so that the new tree is perfectly straight. I’ve planted hundreds of trees this way and seldom had a crooked tree! If your tree does lean, you’ll need to fix it ASAP. Don’t just push on the tree trunk, though, and for goodness sakes, DON’T STAKE like this photo.  For example, if the tree is leaning 10 degrees due north, you’ll have to dig up some soil on the outside of the root ball on the north and the south sides. For this example, use a spade on the north side to pry the root ball sufficiently so as to level the tree trunk. Then tamp the soil EXTRA firm with your foot. Digging on the opposite side (south in this example) facilitates repositioning the root ball. Tamp the soil back in on the opposite side, too.

SIDEBAR: don’t remove the burlap from the root ball, or the wire basket (if present). Cut the twine off of the tree trunk, to avoid girdling the trunk. Make sure that burlap is not exposed, because it will wick water from the root ball. I recommend cutting the top of the burlap off AFTER the tree is planted.

And oh, by the way…cut that ugly tree down!



Kiss Your Buds Goodbye!

Unseasonably Warm Weather

St. Louis and much of the Transition Zone has “benefited” from unseasonably warm weather in November, after some good, cold weather in October. This weather pattern has totally confused our landscape ornamentals, especially beautiful flowering shrubs that bloom on old wood–such as the Bigleaf Hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla cultivars). Plants in our region are programmed to go dormant, based upon either short days and/or cold temperatures. Think about this. To survive our cold winters, plants need to hibernate. Each species has a different chilling requirement (hours of cool/cold weather at a certain base temperature) and those plants that are adapted over a wide geography (such as the showy bigleaf hydrangeas) tend to require too few hours of chilling. As such, they are prone to making mistakes. A good example of how this works is the apple tree. At the risk of oversimplification, an apple tree needs 600 hours below 45 F. This is why Georgia grows peaches and very few apples!

The featured image shows an actual flower bud on the popular ‘Nikko Blue’ selection, taken just a few days ago. The buds emerged in mid November, only to be killed by one of our frosts. These buds should have opened next May! Those of you with these plants know how disappointing they have been these past few years. They were so gorgeous at the nursery! I did some research on the various reasons for flowering failure in this species. Breeders of these cultivars are working on improving heat tolerance, because prolonged hot weather decreases flower bud set. Another obvious need is better cold tolerance. For maximum success here in St. Louis, try to locate your bigleaf hydrangeas on an east or southeast exposure with good protection from winter winds. Shade after 1:00 PM or 2:00 PM is perfect. If you’ve got a brick or stone house, that will enhance your flowering success, because the stone will radiate heat during winter nights, increasing flower bud survival.

A good friend of mine grows nursery stock and I queried him for advice, too. He recommended caging the plants and filling it with straw mulch (or any loose mulch…not leaves…not hardwood bark) by early December to protect the tender buds. That would not have helped this year, but I may try it in the future.