CO-Horts Blog

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Hort Peeves (Tree Edition): Planting to Kill

Posted by: Alison O'Connor, Larimer County Extension

I started my career in horticulture working at Bailey Nurseries in Minnesota. I was a high school student who needed a job, never once thinking how the nursery industry would shape my future. Because of this...and because my brother, Jeffrey, works for Bailey's, I have a deep appreciation and understanding of nursery practices and what's required to produce landscape plants. This is why my blood boils when I see trees mistreated, carelessly maintained or poorly planted--I understand what it takes to produce healthy trees.
Burlap and twine left on the tree at planting. Remove all root ball coverings! Or as much as you possibly can.
Think about it. To help supply the landscape industry, trees are produced at wholesale nurseries throughout the country. The majority of nursery production is on the west coast--California, Washington and Oregon, because they have ideal growing conditions. These states have consistent moisture in winter and long summers perfect for growing ornamental plants. You can produce plants more quickly when you have an optimal growing environment. But that doesn't mean a tree can be grown overnight--in fact, most trees take years to grow.

And then these young trees are delivered to a job site and left to die. Or they are planted wrong, neglected and left to die. Or they are just mistreated and left to die.
Tree planted at the new CSU Medical Center on campus. This tree died within two weeks of planting, likely due to drought stress. It has since been replaced, costing additional time and money.
That's not to say that all nursery trees don't make it--most do. Most of this is preventable. We can prevent tree death if we step up to care for the trees in the first place. I don't have a solution for how to fix this problem, but in true Extension fashion, perhaps a little education is necessary:

All trees start out as a seed or a cutting. It just depends on the type of tree and how it's typically grown. Most named cultivars are vegetatively propagated through asexual reproduction (cuttings, budding, grafting). Some trees, like oaks and redbud, are grown from seed (though they may be grafted later). Seeds are typically fall-sown and cuttings are taken throughout the summer. Regardless, either seeds or cuttings will be sown outdoors or stuck in a greenhouse, nurtured and maintained.
A greenhouse full of maple cuttings.
The young trees (often referred to as "liners") are harvested once they are ready for the next stage of their production cycle, generally after six to 12 months of care.
A maple tree liner.
Trees are dug from the greenhouse and outdoor seedbeds in the fall and transported to cold storage facilities to be sorted and graded during the winter months. The trees are sorted by size, caliber and quality. The following spring, the liners are "lined out" in the field, generally between March and May.

After planting, multiple things can happen. The tree may be budded the first growing season in the field. It may be left to grow for one year so it develops more roots. It may be grown (with regular pruning and training) for a certain period of time (no budding or grafting). Some are even grown in the field for awhile and then transplanted into containers to be grown for an additional year.

But what's important to know is that from seed/cutting to a 1 1/2" to 2" caliper tree may take anywhere from three five years. It will take even longer for bigger trees. That's a long time for the nursery to invest in a product. And that's why it hurts to see these trees dead in the landscape.

For example, if a maple cutting was initiated in the greenhouse this summer, it would be dug in the fall of 2017. It's then planted into the field in 2018. It's grown for another season (2019) and by 2020 it's considered to have a "three year top". The tree may be dug that season or grown for one more and harvested in 2021 (four year top). So after the initial planting of the cutting in the greenhouse, it grows for another four full growing seasons--about five total years, give or take.

This is also why trees are an expensive investment.
If you stop watering (or don't water) the turf, young trees will likely suffer. Remember trees and turf are sharing the water.
Though the industry has recovered quite a bit from the Great Recession, you may have noticed that there was a short supply of trees available for purchase. Calculate back to when those trees would have been started as seeds or cuttings--it would be the late 2000s. Many nurseries stopped producing trees, not knowing if the industry or housing would recover. Things are starting to improve and nurseries are back on track. But there was a definite decrease in supply for a few years.

When you buy a tree or you're planting a job site, make sure you have everything ready to plant. Get the utilities marked. Mark where the trees will be planted. Have water readily available. Make a plan for maintenance following planting. This is far easier for homeowners, who only have to take care of one or two trees. It gets more difficult if you have a large site with 100 trees. But it's not impossible.

So does the grower care what happens to the tree after it leaves the nursery? ABSOLUTELY! Nursery employees spend a lot of time growing trees and want to see their product be successful. We all do.

1 comment:

  1. A great story about trees. I now appreciate them even more than I already do, and the work your brother does to grow them. I won't grumble about the price of the next tree I buy. Now I know why good trees are expensive! and I'm sending this to someone in my little town, as soin as I can figure out who it is that is so good at letting new trees die in our park. Because my taxes are paying for those trees!