Spring tree tending tips

This winter business has gone on just about long enough. We’ve got our sights set on spring, and to get ready, we talked with Philly Tree People’s Dina Richman about what Philadelphians can do to prepare their street or yard trees for the growing season. 

Philly Tree People is a nonprofit, volunteer-led tree tenders group that helps residents in the 19125 and 19134 neighborhoods plant and care for street trees. Homeowners who want to plant trees in other parts of the city can reach out to their local tree tender group, apply for free yard trees or street trees through the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation or take the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Tree Tenders course and form their own tree tending group. 

If you’ve got a tree or are thinking about getting one, here are some tips, courtesy of Richman, to keep in mind. 

Think about how you’ll water your new tree. Young trees can need as much as 15 gallons of water per week! So if you plan on planting once the weather warms up, you can start thinking about how you’ll water your new tree. Will you carry water bucket by bucket? Is there a hose or spigot you can use? 

Don’t leave empty “treegators” on trees. One option for tree watering is a treegator, a slow release watering bag that can be left on the tree to provide a steady supply of water. If you do use a treegator, don’t leave the bag on the tree after it’s empty. 

“A lot of people leave the bags on their trees forever, and that promotes fungal growth and insect problems, and it can kill the trees,” Richman said. “It’s great to use the bag for watering, but then the bag should be removed when it’s empty.”

Use flowering plants to monitor water levels. One way to make sure your tree is getting enough water is to plant flowering plants that don’t have deep roots in the tree pit or around the base of the tree. 

“There’s lots of nice flowering plants that are a really great indicator of when your tree needs water,” Richman said. 

When the flowers start to droop, the soil is drying out and both the tree and flowers need more water. 

Install a pit border. “The first year a tree is in place is the most vulnerable time, so we love it when homeowners put pit borders around their [tree] pits or make some kind of pit frame,” Richman said. 

One of the major advantages to tree pit borders is that they deter dogs from peeing on the trees. Dog urine harms trees and is a common problem for city trees. 

Avoid mulch volcanoes. We’ve all seen trees with mulch and dirt piled high around the base, forming a sort of soil-mulch volcano at the tree’s roots. This is the old way of doing things and something Richman recommends avoiding. 

“Where the tree goes into the ground, you see the trunk bulges where the roots start,” she said. “That’s called the root flare. You don’t want to have mulch and soil around the root flare because wherever the root flare is, if there’s mulch touching it, it’s going to try to send up roots.”

Instead, tree owners should dig out a small trench around the base of the tree, almost creating a bowl in the soil and mulch that the tree can sit in. 

Aerate soil compacted by winter snow. Piling snow around your tree in the winter is fine because all that moisture will soak into the soil and nourish the tree, but the weight of the snow can also compact the soil around the tree. When this soil gets compacted, it can prevent airflow. 

“People who already have trees and are getting ready for spring, they should go through with maybe a trowel, some hand held tool, and try to loosen up the soil that is on top of the tree pit and then put new mulch in,” Richman said. 

“Mulch is fantastic for holding in moisture, and you definitely want mulch in your tree pit,” she said. 

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