Last spring's annual Garden Festival, which was scheduled for the week following Earth Day, forced a difficult sacrifice by the committee that organizes the annual festival for home gardeners.

Our 10-member group was so mired in chaotic plans for the festival that we had no time to participate in the Earth Day events. So we delayed our plans for a community tree-planting to two weeks ago. Coincidentally, it turned out to be the state's official Community Service Day.

We selected trees, and a spot in the southwest segment of Centennial Park to put them.

Many county residents are taking advantage of the fall weather to plant trees, bolstered by reverberations of Earth Day 1990 and a greater recognition of the value of trees to our environment.

The art of planting trees is a combination of sound horticultural knowledge and a lot of common sense. But it can be tricky.

We chose trees to fit the site. The area where we planted the trees is designed to afford shelter and food for birds and other wildlife.

The former rolling meadow, or crop land, has been maintained by an annual mowing practice that includes selectively preserving some of the natural plants that are beginning to germinate and grow. Honeysuckle vine, an escapee from cultivation, is vigorously covering the ground, and a few clumps of native wild cherries and staghorn sumac have claimed some part of this sunny, open area.

In keeping with the setting, our group chose to plant two sour gum trees (Nyssa sylvatica), a red oak (Quercus rubra), and a pin oak (Quercus palustris). To attract butterflies, bees and hummingbirds, two butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii) were added.

The trees, all native to the Howard County area, are often found in our woodlands. Because oaks and sour gums do not initiate roots in the fall season, special care was taken in their planting. They are in a particular group of plants, including dogwoods and pines that are more safely planted in the spring. But the plants were available now, so we took the risk.

It was interesting to notice that the containerized trees bought from a local grower were growing in a coarse sand and bark mixture. The soil in the area of the park where they were planted was a shallow loam over a clay base. The planting site was moved by park personnel to define it and make digging easier. Holes were dug as deep as the containers, and wide enough to completely spread the roots of the plants. That was the easy part of the job. No amendments, such as organic matter, were added to the soil. Because plants develop far-reaching root systems as they grow, they need to become accustomed to native soils from the start.

The containers were split down the sides to remove the root balls. One of the gum trees showed loss of roots near the top of the container and a couple of large twisting roots beginning to circle the bottom. The snarled roots were untangled and headed away from the trunk of the tree. Any broken or wounded roots were pruned to healthy tissue. The other gum tree had so many vigorous roots growing in the container that it was difficult to loosen them. Some of the roots that were circling the pot and other roots had to be pruned to insure that they would not continue in that pattern.

If plants growing like this are planted without disturbing the root ball, they will persist in their suicidal tendency and will strangle themselves within a few years. Many newly planted trees die because homeowners are reluctant to break these roots apart. But containerized plants, and some balled and burlapped trees, need to be handled in this way. Homeowners do need to remember that after such drastic preplanting procedures, the plants were almost as fragile as bare root material. This means they will need extra attention to assure that they are watered regularly for at least the first full year after planting.

The roots of the oaks were not as compacted, and the butterfly bush's smaller, fibrous roots were unmatted. The next step was to set the plants, with the roots spread, a couple of inches higher than they were growing in the containers and to fill in the soil around them. They were lightly packed, and water was added to settle the soil. Only one of the gums needed to be staked to keep it in an upright position in strong winds -- the tree was staked to allow plenty of slack. The other trees were not staked in order to promote faster root growth. Research shows that staked trees tend to use the support as a crutch, and don't put out as many foundation roots.

A shallow, 1-inch mulch was applied to define the planted area around each tree. No fertilizers were added.

Watering will be the most important task to assure a good start for the plants. Fertilizer will not be added until late next fall because it stimulates extra growth which the trees may not have enough root balance to sustain.

The park workers promise to keep a watchful eye on the plants and the Garden Festival group will be looking forward to seeing them flourish

Green Piece features local gardening tips and profiles of county gardeners every Sunday. It is written by Miriam Mahowald and Mary Gold, two county residents with green thumbs.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad