By Michael Jenkins
Whether ornamental or fruit-bearing, trees are some of the most dramatic and longest-lasting features in any garden. While trees require a lot less care than many other garden plants, they still need some TLC from time to time. So what’s the best approach to keeping your trees healthy and happy for years to come? That depends on a lot of things, so let’s go over some approaches to caring for the trees in your garden.
The first thing to look at is the kind of trees you have (or would like to have!) and the conditions in your garden. Most trees are adapted to a fairly specific set of conditions, and in order to thrive in your garden those conditions will need to exist in that space. Let’s look at some of the factors you’ll need to consider:
- Soil conditions: Is your soil rich and loamy or sandy? Alkaline or acidic? Well-drained or saturated with water? While you can alter soil conditions in order to support the tree in question, you’ll need to know what you’re starting with.
- Climate and weather: The old joke “climate is what we expect, weather is what we get” holds true when considering conditions in your garden and what’s best for your trees. What are you general climate conditions, and what are the current weather conditions? Hot and humid climates occasionally have droughts, and that can affect your trees and how you care for them. Do some research on both your climate zone and the kind of trees you have.
- Other environmental factors: are you close to the coast and thus subject to salt spray? Does your corner of the world get strong windstorms? Do you get hard freezes every winter? What kind of bugs and birds are found in your area? All of these affect trees, and are something to consider when selecting a tree or establishing a plan for tree care.
Once you’ve taken a good, detailed look at your circumstances, you’ll want to consider what kind of trees you have. There are some good resources online for doing research on different kinds of trees—the Arbor Day Foundation has a great online guide—so make use of these sources of information and determine what kinds of trees you have and what they need. It helps to take notes both on the kind of tree in general and what you’ve done to your trees individually. While each kind of tree and each set of circumstances are different, here are some aspects of tree care to consider for your trees:
- Don’t overdo it! Trees, by and large, can care for themselves. While circumstances may require you to provide a bit of support, there’s a greater risk in over-involving yourself with your trees and creating problems with unneeded attempts at care.
- Protect the soil. The soil is critical in the health of your trees, so avoid digging around them or otherwise disturbing the roots. The roots can extend two or three times further than the branches so give your tree a wide berth for construction, paving, and parking. Mulching around the base is probably OK, but otherwise leave the soil alone!
- Protect the bark. A tree’s bark shields its vulnerable parts from the outside world, and keeping the bark in tact is a big part of keeping a tree happy. Be very careful with vehicles, lawn equipment, sprinklers, and the like around your trees. Any repetitive contact to the bark can cause damage which can lead to infection, disease, and even tree death. String trimmers/weed whackers are prime culprits—they may not look like they’re doing much, but they can wreak havoc on your tree’s bark!
- Prune prudently. Trees of all sizes need occasional pruning, but careful, selective pruning is the rule. Mature trees generally don’t require much pruning, while smaller or younger trees may require more regular care with appropriately sized tools. Make sure your tools are sharp and cleaned between uses—dirty pruning tools are a prime culprit for transmitting plant diseases!
- Water and fertilize appropriately. Again, most trees are self-sufficient, but they do occasionally need feeding and watering. Learn your trees, keep an eye on local conditions, and make appropriate choices. Trees don’t respond as quickly to water and fertilizer as smaller plants, so give them time and avoid overdoing it.
We hope this short guide gives you a framework for understanding and thinking about tree care. Trees are long-term investments, providing joy and beauty for years to come. With a little care, you’ll help them look their best, live a long and healthy life, and give your garden additional life and depth.