Intelligent Installations: Tree & Shrub Installations

Features - Design/Build

A successful tree or shrub installation can reduce the possibility of future problems.

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November 23, 1999

It happens all too often. A tree is being removed from a property because it didn’t get the correct maintenance. Maybe the tree finally surrendered to a deadly disease. Or, worst of all, perhaps the problems started when the tree was not properly installed in the first place.

The successful installation of trees and shrubs requires knowledge about many factors including site selection, how deep the planting should be and what maintenance should be performed as soon as the woody ornamental is in the ground. If these major points are considered during the installation and contractors know what costly and deadly mistakes to avoid, a tree or shrub installation will run more smoothly and may eliminate the risk of future problems.

SITE STRATEGIES. The first step of any installation is choosing the perfect location for the customer’s trees and shrubs. Although there are many factors to consider, the most common considerations mentioned by contractors are drainage and soil conditions.

“Look for areas that are well-drained and have fertile soil,” recommended Bruce Phillips, owner of Treemasters, Fulton, Md. “Also, look for areas with the appropriate amount of sunlight that is needed for the specific plant material.”

Kevin McSherry, president and owner, From the Ground Up, Decatur, Ill., also suggested paying close attention to the soil type and drainage ability of the location.

“Keep in mind your location to sidewalks, buildings and driveways. This is useful when choosing the plant type,” McSherry pointed out. “For example, you don’t want to install plants that are too large for the site. Also, be aware of the amount of sun or shade that is in the area where you will plant.”

“We look at a site’s drainage ability and also the sun and wind in that area,” echoed Jeff Korhan, president of Treemendous Landscape, Plainfield, Ill. “We use that information to determine our plant choice.”

Prevent and Protect

    As more wooded land is developed into commercial and residential sites, the construction process can be deadly to nearby trees, according to the International Society of Arboriculture, Champaign, Ill., however, it is possible to preserve trees on building sites if the right measures are taken.

    There are five major ways that trees can be damaged during construction, according to the ISA.

    • Physical injury to the trunk and crown – Construction equipment can injure the above-ground portion of a tree by breaking branches, tearing the bark and wounding the tree.

    • Cutting the roots – The digging and trenching necessary to construct a building or to install underground utilities will likely sever a portion of the roots of many trees in the area.

    • Soil compaction – This happens when pores, the spaces between soil particles, are filled with water and air. The heavy equipment used in construction compacts the soil, and can dramatically reduce the amount of pore space. This not only inhibits root growth and penetration, but also decreases oxygen in the soil that is essential to the growth and function of the roots.

    • Smothering the roots by adding soil – Piling soil over the root system or increasing the grade will smother the roots. It only takes a few inches of added soil to kill a sensitive, mature tree.

    • Exposure to the elements is the fifth form of injury – Trees in a forest situation grow as a community, protecting each other from the elements. Removal of neighboring trees, or opening the shared canopies of trees will expose the remaining trees to sunlight and wind.

      Knowing the five major ways that trees can become damaged, it is crucial to know what to do to protect them, according to the ISA.

    • Erect barriers – The single most important action to take is to set up construction fences around all of the trees that are to remain. The fences should be placed as far out from the trunks of the trees as possible. As a general guideline, allow 1 foot of space from the trunk for each inch of trunk diameter.

    • Limit access – It at all possible, it is best to allow only one access route on and off the property. Specify storage areas for equipment, soil and construction materials. These areas should be away from protected trees.

    • Get it in writing – All of the measures intended to protect your trees must be written into the construction specifications.

    • Maintain good communication – It is important for the both the landscape and construction crews to work together as a team.

    • Post-construction tree maintenance – Trees will require several years to adjust to the injury and environmental changes that occur during construction. Stressed trees are more prone to health problems such as disease and insect infestations.
      – Angela Dyer

Additional factors to note include paying attention to whether or not the tree will be placed near power lines and knowing how much room it will have to grow, according to Bob Hawkinson, vice president of TLC Total Lawn Care, Jacksonville, Fla.

“Also, for shrubs, contractors need to look at the color of building,” Hawkinson added. “You don’t want to put a white shrub against a white building. In addition, pay attention to the plant’s cold hardiness, maintenance needs, possible pest problems and whether or not it’s poisonous. You definitely don’t want to put a poisonous shrub on a playground.”

With all of the requirements that different plant materials have and the many conditions that sites have, Roger Funk, vice president and general manager of Davey Institute, the research and training division of Davey Tree, Kent, Ohio, explained the importance of matching these up to see if the plant and the site is a good fit.

“Try to match the requirements of the tree to the site characteristics,” recommended Funk, highlighting a plant’s hardiness zones and sun exposure needs, as well as soil conditions and drainage as keys to focus on. “If they don’t match, sometimes you can change the site characteristics but usually the best solution is to change the plant material. The more they differ, the more maintenance dollars you will end up spending.”

Careful contractors will still overlook site problems. As Karen Olson-Smith described, the most common mistake she sees is plant material needing full sun that is planted in full shade.

“I’ve actually had to move plants around to find a better location for them,” remarked Olson-Smith, marketing and sales director for TechScape, Richardson, Texas.

Phillips also agreed that he sees quite a few plants that are not shade tolerant planted in the shade. “Also, if insects and disease are prevalent in a certain area, you should think ahead to a maintenance program or not install susceptible plants in that area.”

Compacted soil is another condition that should not be overlooked, according to McSherry. “Compacted soil can be mostly at a commercial or construction site and even at residential sites that are being re-landscaped. There might be areas where heavy traffic was present, either by vehicle or foot, and it is now compacted. This soil may need to have soil amendments added in order to reduce compaction.”

Soil Preparations

    One of the first steps in installing trees and shrubs is making sure the land-scape is prepared for the planting. This means that the soil should be in the proper condition. There are a few key points to keep in mind when making these necessary soil preparations.

    Bruce Phillips, owner of Treemasters, Fulton, Md., explained a step-by-step process to follow before planting begins.

    “First, find out what mature trees are in the area,” Phillips suggested. “Keep their root systems in mind when digging as not to damage them. Then, take soil tests and check the pH level to tell how much organic material you are going to need to add.

    Echoing Phillips on the importance of root systems, David Allen, vice president of Rootwell said, “Determining how well trees and shrubs will grow and the overall health of the plant greatly depends on the condition of the root system. Roots must have an available water source with proper drainage, too much water is as detrimental as not enough.”

    Phillips also stated that contractors also need to be aware of any fertilizer requirements necessary, recommending slow-release fertilizers because they will not burn the roots.

    “If necessary, we will improve the soil by adding an organic material,” stated Kevin McSherry, president and owner of From the Ground Up, De-catur, Ill. “We till it in 8 to 12 inches deep.”

    Phillips also recommended that soil fracturing might be necessary for heavy clay soils that have been compacted. “Soil fracturing breaks up the compacted soil, which is sometimes necessary before planting.”

    “Even with heavy soil, if it is removed and replaced, it will remain non-compacted for three to five years,” added Roger Funk, vice president and general manager of Davey Institute, the research and training division of Davey Tree, Kent, Ohio. – Angela Dyer

THE PLANTING PROCESS. To make tree and shrub plantings successful, it’s crucial to know the common mistakes that have already been made, in order to avoid them.

Phillips listed several mistakes such as not removing the synthetic twine or burlap from the root ball, which will eventually girdle the root ball and restrict its growth and kill it. It’s also just as important to break up the root mass. This could also wrap around the tree and “choke” it.

Placing trees and shrubs too deep in the ground seems to be the most prevalent error contractors see. Hawkinson said that he plants a couple of inches higher than normal because the tree will settle.

“Some people plant them too low and then mulch at the top of the crown, only to find that the tree fails,” Hawkinson stated.

In order to keep the tree from being damaged from too deep of a planting, there are some guidelines that can be followed, according to McSherry.

“It does depend on the plant size,” McSherry explained, “We normally look at a container and triple its size and that will become the size of the hole. For balled-and- burlapped plants, we triple the size of the ball. We use this rule for perennials as well, and triple the size of the quart container.”

LAST BUT NOT LEAST. When the installation is nearly complete and the plant has been placed in the ground, a contractor needs to be aware of the next steps necessary to give the tree or shrub a good start.

The first thing to do once the plant material is in the hole is to fill the soil back in around the plant and settle it with water, according to Funk. The next step is pruning and applying mulch to the site.

“Mulch helps in a few ways,” Funk commented. “During the establishment of the root system, competition for water from the weeds inhibits the root growth. But, mulch can inhibit these weeds in the first place, if it is used. Mulch also moderates the soil temperature, as well as captures moisture and slows evaporation.”

After the planting, McSherry also protects the root system by fertilizing the tree or shrub with a fertilizer having low nitrogen and high potassium and phosphorus.

“These are generally root stimulators,” McSherry explained. “We fertilize all of our plant material at the time of planting. Then we leave directions with the homeowners that covers watering and fertilizing instructions. We tell them what the plants need – about 1 inch of water per week. We also tell them to be sure to use a slow trickle of water for about 25 minutes. A fast stream of water could just run off quickly and not absorb.”

Aside from these maintenance tips, preventative maintenance is a major factor to remember before the project even begins. It will allow the whole process to run smoothly.

“Even before installation, make sure you have healthy plant material,” Olson-Smith said. “Choose plants that have healthy roots and are free from stress and disease.”

The author is Assistant Editor of Lawn & Landscape magazine.

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