Planting a tree this fall? Don’t do it wrong. Here are 4 things you need to know

Picture of Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Executive Director

Since its inception, TreesLouisville  has done nothing other than plant a gazillion trees, train a bazillion volunteers, inspire a boatload of young people, and most importantly, raise the profile of trees and their importance to quality of life in and around Louisville.

You know the drill . . . The more extensive and the healthier our tree canopy, the more we reduce heat island impacts on our daily lives. It helps reduce storm runoff. It supports a healthier ecosystem from birds and bees to monarchs and microbes. Healthy tree canopies put us in a better mood, help us heal faster and help our kids learn. 

Tree Week, held this year Oct. 7-14, is a several years old, annual TreesLouisville effort to further inspire and motivate community members around the urgent need for trees. It compiles the collective expertise and capacity of numerous organizations across the community to offer a tremendously diverse slate of tree walks, classes and programs. From yoga classes to movie screenings, volunteer days and lectures, there seems to be something for just about everyone at just about any level of interest and expertise.

If you’ve wanted to get more involved or wanted to start from scratch, this is an excellent place to start because just throwing a bunch of trees in the ground with little planning or thought isn’t the answer. Thoughtful planning, purposeful implementation and sustained, quality care is essential to making tree efforts successful. 

So to help further the cause, I thought this would be a good week to offer up my top 5 list of things you can do to help our community reach the goal of a healthy, extensive and thriving tree canopy along our streets and in our home landscapes. 

1- Planting & Tree Care Tips

Planting a young tree and putting it on a path to a long and productive life is one of the greatest investments you can make in a landscape, public or private. The total of environmental services a tree provides during its lifetime are incalculable but from carbon sequestration to reducing energy grid demand, the totals are off the charts. And on a simpler and totally pragmatic level, how much time do you spend looking around a big, paved parking lot on a hot summer day, trying to find the one parking space in the shade of a tree? 

But planting a tree can be tricky. There’s species (and variety) selection to make, overhead and buried wires to evaluate, soil and light conditions, and so much more. It can all be a bit overwhelming. But there are plenty of resources and lots of expertise out there.

The Cooperative Extension Service, a wide array of retail garden centers, non-profits (botanical gardens, TreesLouisville, etc.) . . . all offer programs, tree selection recommendations and other advice to help get you going in the right direction. 

2- Effective Irrigation

While it’s true that trees did very well for eons without human intervention, it’s also true that before humans showed up on the land, there weren’t strip mall parking lots being built, sewer lines being dug up and utility trimming crews butchering trees. When you think of it, don’t we owe the poor trees a little extra TLC? 

I think if we start looking at ourselves more as stewards of old trees rather than owners, we are moving in the right direction. Is it time to call in a professional arborist to do a bit of structural pruning? Do you have an irrigation plan for these tremendously dry periods? Whether or not you’re around 50 or 100 years from now, I think those picnicking under that tree will thank you for a bit of horticultural paying it forward. 

3- Don’t forget the roots

Always out of sight and usually out of mind, tree roots are the life blood of trees. Yes, keeping them well irrigated is a huge plus. But there’s more to healthy roots than water. 

Compaction, or more specifically – soil compaction, is so easy to cause and so devastating to the long-term survival of trees. You take a drive to Cherokee Park on a sunny Sunday afternoon. It’s nice out but if the car sits in the sun while you’re on your hike it’ll be 1000 degrees by the time you return. You see a nice big old oak tree growing right next to the parking lot and think, “if I just ease the car over the curb, I could park in that luxurious shade . . .” The problem is, that 2 hours of shady parking can cause a tremendous loss of soil porosity.

Plant roots need the support of a stable soil – so the solid parts are essential. But they can’t survive without also having a healthy balance water retention and drainage. Air in the soil is as important as water when it comes to long term tree health. The soil compaction caused by one casual short cut drive across the yard or one afternoon of car parking can take decades for natural weathering and other processes to undo. And by that time, your precious tree may be long gone.

4- Be the Lorax – speak for the trees!

While we’re generally taught to tread lightly with our opinions and druthers, this is one of those places where we all need to make bigger pests of ourselves. I mean in 100 years or so, will anyone remember how much you pestered your neighbors about planting a few trees, watering their trees, calling in an arborist to prune their trees? Or . . . will they blithely glide back and forth on the tire swing in the shade of that tree?

This article was originally submitted to the Courier Journal on October 3, 2023.

About the Author

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