Share this article

print logo

Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham: It’s a wonderful feeling to plant a tree

Last weekend, I had a goal: to plant a tree. I knew it would be difficult, given the soil and distance to the chosen site. Also my back strength is limited. Loved ones repeatedly tell me, “Don’t try to do these things yourself; hire some help.” What they don’t understand: Some acts are personal. Sometimes you have to do a job yourself.

It was a cool and crispy football Sunday. For me that translates as time for myself in the garden, with no guilt about neglecting family, friends or work. I’d walked the dog and stretched; it was my time.

Here the tale takes a detour. Once a dear old master gardener named Fred wrote a story just like this, a universal gardener’s experience, and I was remembering Fred even as it was happening. I started out to plant a tree, but on the way to get the shovel I saw a few things that had to be done first. The deck plants and a couple of recently planted hydrangeas were drooping – no rain in sight. You have to water drooping plants, no matter what.

I turned on the hose, took care of the container plants first, and then put the hose in a section of the garden to flood an entire area. That gave me some time to take care of the water garden filter since the fountain had stopped spouting. I filled a tub with water, moved the hose to a new area and then disassembled the pump and filter parts. It’s an old charcoal filter.

I should replace it – maybe go down to Masterson’s right now – need some brown mulch for the paths anyway ... But I’d better spread the newspaper first … Then I’ll change my boots; it’s getting hot. Better sunscreen. I will need the wagon … better empty it into the compost pile. I could use some of that compost today anyway … where’d I put that box of newspapers?

That’s how it goes, and it’s one of the great things about gardening. You do not need a plan. The garden leads you from task to task until soon you are not thinking and planning, just responding, just doing, just tending the garden. It’s what some of us call relaxation. It’s as close as I get to meditation.

This time the detour was brief. I did not go to the garden center. I did not start into compost extraction or pile rebuilding, nor did I spread newspapers and mulch paths. I did water everything that needed it, and then dragged the multiple hoses as far as they could reach – past the bridge to the left of the path to the pond.

I would plant that tree. Someday it would make a beautiful vista, a triangle formed with the river birch and oak tree that I planted 12 or 15 years ago. I might have placed this new tree a bit farther to the right, but compromised: The tree will do best planted exactly as far as the hoses can reach. A new tree must be watered often during the first couple of years.

Then the work began. To dig a wide hole in a field of grass and goldenrod, in heavy clay, is not easy. In my ear was the voice of the physical therapist, Dave, who once saved me from back spasms: “You have to counter the forward movements. Bend backward three times every 15 minutes when you’re shoveling or stooping. Stay centered. Lift smaller amounts. Bend your knees. Maintain your arch; it’s the strongest structural form.”

OK, Dave, but I still have to dig a hole three times the width of this root ball, rough up the edges of the hole, loosen the soil beneath to give water some place to exit. I’m not going to dig a little clay swimming hole for this tree to drown in.

The chosen tree has been on my mind for years: a black mulberry (Morus nigra). My sister and I grew up with black and white mulberry trees, and I love their fruit, their bark and the memory of my swing on one. Best of all, the birds go crazy for mulberries, and I will be able to see them from the porch. (Some fruit growers even plant mulberries at the outer edges of their orchards, since mulberries are even better than cherries.) Also, it’s a tree that can live in clay soil.

I used a big-wheeled wagon to haul the tree (5 feet tall in a 2-gallon pot), shovel and a bag of Bumper Crop™ compost out there. The tree roots did not need pulling apart as it had been repotted once in the last two years. I placed it in the hole with its crown just a tiny bit above soil level – the root flare should always be above ground. I put some compost and clay into the bottom of the hole. Then I flooded the hole once and let it drain while I did that stretching bit.

The drainage was so slow I had time to fetch the dog on a long leash so he could hang out with me in the sunshine. Then I widened the hole, creating some rivulets outward, to help drainage. Finally I backfilled with half compost, half soil (after weeding the clods by hand), patted it all down and slowly soaked the entire area.

On a windy hill like mine, some people would stake a new tree. But the canopy is so light that I don’t think there’s much chance of blowing over. I don’t think the deer who pass here regularly will chew on it, but I will be watching. If necessary I will put a chicken wire fence around it, or my tallest Shrub Coat™ for the first winter. I will water this tree every few days in the absence of rain. I will mulch the root area with 3 inches of wood chips after the soil has frozen.

I was indeed tired from the project, and my back and hands ached a little. But what a feeling: I planted a tree today, and I did it myself.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.