New Tree Care

Home Grown  by Keith Reed
Once the investment of a new tree is made, it is critical to follow a few steps to help insure its long term success. These are not difficult tasks, but based on years of observations, they are steps that appear to be often neglected. For the purposes of this discussion, we will begin with the assumption that the tree has been properly planted and its water needs are being met. If you have yet to plant this fall, contact the Extension office (information below) for advice on proper tree planting procedures.

Mulch properly. In addition to serving the important role of moisture management, mulch also helps to limit competition with turfgrass. In our area, bermudagrass is an especially vigorous competitor for water and nutrients and keeping it away from a small tree will pay big dividends over the first few years of the tree’s life. As mulch breaks down over time, it also improves soil biodiversity, which helps to create a healthier plant.

Avoid piling mulch up directly against the trunk of the tree. Volcano mulching, an industry term for poorly installed mulch piled around the base of a tree, acts as a harbor for disease and insects. At the trunk-soil interface, only a small amount of mulch should be used. The depth of mulch can then be increased to 2-3 inches as you move away from the trunk. The mulched area should extend a bit beyond the original diameter of the root ball at a minimum, and several feet if possible.

Proper staking is also important. Allow the tree some movement and make sure the stems/trunk is not damaged by the staking material. Except in extreme cases, one year should be plenty of time to leave staking materials on a new planting. If ropes, wires or other staking material is left on long enough to cause deformation, the tree will never fully recover.

Your tree may have come from a nursery with a protective wrap installed around the trunk. This serves to protect the tree during the shipping and handling process. This wrap can also protect trees from one of the most common environmental stresses many species face; winter injury, also called southwest injury (or sunscald).

Winter injury is characterized by large sections bark splitting away from the trunk. This will almost always be on the southwest side of the tree. It is caused on cold but sunny winter days when the trunk warms quickly with the low winter sun. The bark wrap serves to prevent this overheating. This is a common problem with maples planted in our area so this is an important factor that should not be overlooked.

However, problems of a different nature can develop when this wraps are left on the trunk throughout the growing season. Just like with excessive mulch, wrap can harbor insects and disease. To prevent this, remove trunk wrap each April and replace it again each fall (after leaf drop) until the bark begins to develop some signs of maturity.

Finally, closely inspect the root flare of the tree once a year or so for the first several years of the tree’s life, looking for signs of girdling roots and cut or remove them as needed. While this is primarily an issue to be addressed at planting, problem roots can also show up several years later. If the tree has been mulched properly, this is an easy thing to do. Simply rake the mulch away from the root flare for a quick peek and then rake it back into place.

For more information on this or any other horticultural topic, you can contact Keith Reed, the Horticulturist in the Payne County Extension office. Keith can be reached via email at
keith.reed@okstate.edu, phone at 405-747-8320, or in person at the Payne County Extension office, located at 315 W. 6th in Stillwater.

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