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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Acer palmatum, Tree planting, Transplanting

I would like to transplant a Japanese maple, probably 5 years old and about 8 feet tall. Can I do it in late October/November safely in St. Louis? And what is the best method?


Japanese maples are best transplanted when they are dormant---usually late fall through early spring if the ground does not freeze in your area.

The following information comes from Japanese Maples (by J.D. Vertrees, 2001, pp.61-62). This book also contains good information about mulching and general care:

When moving a plant to a different location within a garden, the plant must be dug with an earthen ball intact around the roots. If the plant is of any size or age, this root protection is important. It is also desirable that the planting hole be prepared in advance, ready to receive the plant with its root ball, as soon as it is dug up. Having the new planting hole ready minimizes the risk of the fine feeding roots drying out. For this reason it is imperative that, whatever method, material, or timing is used when planting a Japanese maple, the roots are not exposed to air or direct sunlight for any length of time. Such care will help prevent them from becoming desiccated, which would cause too much transplant shock and possible loss of the tree.

The planting hole should be dug slightly larger than the root mass of the plant. To enable the root system to establish itself quickly, it helps to mix with the soil organic compost, such as composted conifer bark mulch, rhododendron or azalea planting mix, or rose compost. In tight , heavy clay soils the compost helps condition the soil, while in light, sandy soils the compost assists in water retention. Sawdust or wood chippings should never be used as, during their breakdown, they use up the available soil nitrogen and render it unavailable to the newly planted tree.

The planting hole should be deep enough so that the root collar of the plant, the ground line at which the young plant was grown, is level with the ground surface. The exception to this rule applies to tight, heavy soils, like clay, where success will be greater if the hole is rather shallow so that the root system is partly above the ground level. When filling in the hole, the soil should then be mounded up to the root collar to protect the roots from drying out. If deep holes are dug in heavy soil, it is like planting the tree in a large iron kettle with no drainage. Surely the plant will soon drown and die.

Whatever the soil conditions, the tree should never be planted deeper than the root collar. After the first season or two, the plant will find the level of root activity at which it can exist in particular soil conditions. I have observed maples growing in some surprisingly dry, shallow, and exposed conditions.

Date 2019-09-19
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Trees in cities, Tree planting, Magnolia

How do I go about planting a new Magnolia tree this fall?


The City of Seattle's Department of Transportation has perhaps the best set of instructions and tips for planting trees in the Pacific Northwest. It includes a diagram of how to plant a tree. This same site also has guidelines for care of young trees. If your tree is a "street tree" (planted in a parking strip), then be sure it is appropriate. The left-hand menu here gives lists of trees that are and are not appropriate, under Street Trees.

The current consensus is that you do not need to amend the hole with new or superior soil from another source when you fill in the hole, as this just creates an environment the roots do not want to leave. In order for a tree to become established, the roots need to grow outward, into the native soil. Washington State University Extension professor Linda Chalker-Scott discusses this subject as well as whether or not to disturb the root ball, how to handle balled and burlapped trees(remove the wire basket!), and whether staking is necessary.

The University of British Columbia Botanical Garden Forums includes the following comments about planting some varieties of magnolias:

"I would only use a well seasoned compost for a Magnolia as a top dress at planting time. We advised people to dig the hole three times the width of the root ball and place the dug out soil back in the hole with no other soil additives. Providing a root shock preventer such as liquid Vitamin B1 at a rate of one fluid ounce per gallon of water is optional. A good choice to use when planting these Magnolias on a warm day in a warm climate but generally not needed in the Pacific Northwest. What we have to guard against is planting this and others of this series too low in the ground. We like to plant these in a raised mound for a yard planting. Never plant these trees with the graft union at soil level, try to plant them about six inches to a foot above the soil level and allow for settling in later. A Spring planting is regarded as being best for these Magnolias but in the warmer climates can be planted almost year round as our soils here seldom ever are frozen."

I would add to this that planting too deeply is a common mistake, but another mistake is to plant "too high" (as is suggested above, when the writer mentions planting in a "raised mound"). Some people think that such a mound can be buried in mulch; it is much better to plant at the proper depth and use mulch from about 6 inches away from the trunk to the outer edge of the root ball, creating a 'dam' as described by Seattle Department of Transportation.Then you can turn the hose on low and let the water fill the 'moat' created by the dam. During the winter, be careful that your mulch is not too deep, as it can actually keep water from getting into the soil (3-4 inches of mulch is plenty). Mulch in the spring through fall is much more important for keeping water from evaporating from the soil surface, as well as for slowing down the weeds. Be careful not to pile mulch against the trunk of the tree, as this can cause rot.

One more thing, as mentioned below on University of British Columbia Botanical Gardens Forum, do not fill the planting hole with water, as this may contribute to root rot.

Date 2019-12-18
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Cupressus, Tree planting, Transplanting, Soil amendments, Conifers

I am going to take my 6-foot tall Wilma Goldcrest out of the giant pot it is currently in, and plant it in the ground. I am seeking some sort of consensus on how to prepare the hole into which the tree is going. Someone said that I should not put compost in the hole because that will encourage the roots to just stay in the area of the hole. If that's the case, then shouldn't the "no compost" rule apply to all new plantings (which, of course, it does not)? Also, when should I fertilize the tree and what kind of fertilizer should I use? I always use organic fertilizers. What about putting some bone meal in the planting hole to feed new root growth?


I refer you to the following information from Washington State University Extension horticulturist, Professor Linda Chalker-Scott, who discusses planting procedures in her book, The Informed Gardener (University of Washington Press, 2008). She says that the planting hole need only be the depth of the root system, but should be twice the width. She advises against amending the planting hole in any way: Backfill the hole with native soil, not a soil amendment. The idea is not to 'spoil' the plant by putting rich compost just in the hole, which will deter the roots from spreading out into the surrounding area.

Her debunked gardening myths may also be found online. This one addresses soil amendments and planting. She also addresses the use of bone meal as a planting amendment.

'Wilma Goldcrest' is a cultivar of Cupressus macrocarpa, or Monterey cypress. The University of California's Garden Information publication on "Pines and Other Conifers"(including Monterey cypress)says:
"Pines and conifers require less fertilizer than most other trees and shrubs. Heavy fertilizing can promote rank, unsightly growth, destroying their natural, symmetrical, picturesque form." If you do wish to use fertilizer, a dilution of something like seaweed or fish fertilizer would probably not be harmful.

Here is more about fertilizing conifers from University of Minnesota Extension Horticulture.
"Why Fertilize?
The plant itself will often indicate when it needs fertilizer. If growth rate and needle color are normal for a particular variety, fertilization is not necessary. If new growth is sparse or slow, or the needles are not a healthy color, or are shorter than normal, you should probably fertilize. Keep in mind, however, it is not unusual or abnormal for newly transplanted evergreens to exhibit slow growth until they're re-established.
Regular fertilization may be recommended if you are trying to grow evergreens in a less than ideal site, such as very sandy or heavy clay soil, or if the plant has suffered damage from insects or disease. You might also wish to fertilize to encourage more rapid growth in relatively young evergreens."

Local garden writer Ann Lovejoy says the following in her book, The Handbook of Northwest Gardening (Sasquatch Books, 2007): "I rarely feed plants directly, preferring to feed the soil with what are called 'feeding mulches,' made of materials such as compost, seed meals, kelp, and fish meals."

Date 2019-09-11
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Urban horticulture, Seedlings, Tree planting

We are planning to have a 'green' wedding, and thought about giving baby trees to our guests as favors, as a way of giving a gift that will leave an environmental legacy. Do you know of any sources?


I have had several questions like yours in the past, and I usually recommend substituting flower or vegetable seed packets, or perennials (including edible plants like herbs) for saplings. Many of the saplings available are conifers which mature into large trees--often too large for smaller home gardens, unless the residents intend to make them into bonsai specimens. Summer is probably the most labor-intensive time to plant a tree, because of the greater need for irrigation. That being said, there are numerous companies which market 'baby trees' (seedlings) as gifts. Here are just two examples:
Tree in a Box
Green World Project

If you want a green gift which is sustainable, I recommend giving low-maintenance perennial plants which have a high likelihood of survival even in a small home garden or apartment balcony. Another alternative is to donate an amount to an organization that reforests or restores natural areas, and then provide a certificate to each guest saying that a tree has been planted to mark the occasion of your wedding. See links to various organizations that take donations below:
American Forests
Arbor Day Foundation
The Heifer Project

Date 2019-09-21
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Tree planting, Conifers

The nursery recommended waiting to plant a Cedrus deodara until after the first hard frost. As we are in USDA Zone 7 (the lower limit for a deodar), I'd think we would want to get it in the ground as early as possible. Any idea what the rationale is behind this advice?


I am really not sure what their rationale might be. I agree with you that planting in the fall is preferable. Here is information which supports this:
Excerpt from Brooklyn Botanic Garden booklet on conifers:
"Across most of the country, spring (early or late, depending on how far north you are) and early fall, when temperatures are cooler and rainfall more abundant, are the best times to plant conifers. To reduce transpiration or water loss from the tree, plant on an overcast day when there is ample soil moisture."

I don't know if your tree was a bare-root specimen or container-grown. Here is what Keith Rushforth says in his book Conifers (Christopher Helm, 1987):
"Bare-rooted stock can only be planted during the dormant season. This restricts planting to the period November to April. Planting during midwinter is better avoided, because cold, dry winds during the winter can desiccate the young plants before the roots have been able to make new growth. Planting after April is only feasible if the plants have been held dormant in a cold store.
Container-grown stock can be planted out during most of the year, although the period of maximum growth from late May to early August is better avoided unless watering is no problem. A check should be kept on whether winter-planted stock needs watering; it is very easy for the compost to dry out during dry periods in the winter."

Based on the above, it seems like a good idea to plant now (fall).

Date 2019-09-11
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Garden Tip

Keywords: Tree planting, Tree identification

Trees are the answer! Or at least trees make our lives better by casting shade, cleaning the air and giving refuge to birds. It's important to find the right tree for the right place.

  • Great Plant Picks has selected plants that are proven performers in the Pacific Northwest. Complete profiles of all selected trees are available at their website www.greatplantpicks.org or give them a call to get their free booklet (206) 362-8612
  • Use SelectTree, a database from the Urban Forest Ecosystems Institute to select attributes that you want your tree to possess, such as clay soil, dry, resistant to verticillium wilt and fragrant flowers (that search suggested ornamental pear). Over 1,000 trees are profiled.
  • More tree information can be found at Virginia Tech Dendrology department fact sheet database, including a recording of the proper pronunciation of the Latin name. Over 800 trees are listed.
  • Friends of the Trees promotes planting trees in our cities to improve our quality of life. Their website also offers tree profiles and has a list of suggested trees for planting under power lines.

Date: 2007-04-03
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Garden Tip

Keywords: Tree planting, Christmas trees

Caring for a living Christmas tree takes more work, but the reward is the satisfaction of planting a beautiful, long-lived conifer. Here are some guidelines for easing the transition from nursery to your home, and finally into the garden:

  • Don't keep the tree inside longer than seven days.
  • Keep it well watered, but not soaking wet. If the root ball is wrapped in burlap place it on top of gravel in a bucket so that it doesn't sit in water.
  • Keep the room inside as cool as can be tolerated.
  • Gradually reintroduce the tree to cold temperatures by placing it in an unheated garage for a week or two.
  • When you're ready to plant it (and the ground isn't frozen) dig the hole the same depth as the root ball, and twice as wide. Don't add anything to the soil. Remember to water it for at least the next two summers.

Date: 2007-04-03
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