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Garden Help Desk: It’s not too early to prune and plant trees, but keep these tips in mind

By USU Extension - Special to the Daily Herald | Feb 10, 2024
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Containerized trees are often buried too deeply in their containers. Always locate the trunk/root flare before planting to give your tree a good start in your landscape.
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Large trees can be difficult to move safely without help.
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Circling roots can girdle a tree trunk if left in place.

When can I start pruning and planting trees this year?

Exactly when to start your pruning depends on what kind of trees you have. Shade trees need little, if any, pruning, but fruit trees need annual pruning to maintain productivity.

Pruning is best done while the trees are dormant, but waiting another few weeks may be good. Pruning can temporarily reduce hardiness, so don’t prune if there is extreme cold (low teens or lower) in the forecast.

If you can find the tree you want, if your soil isn’t frozen and if the soil is moist but not wet, you can plant a tree. We like to review the basics for planting healthy trees and shrubs each year, so here are a few tips.

If you can’t easily lift and move your new tree or shrub, recruit a friend or two to help.

Don’t carry your tree by the trunk as this could break away roots. Instead, lift the tree by its container or root ball. Very few home gardeners have a tree dolly in their tool shed, but you and a friend can improvise by using a wheelbarrow or furniture dolly to move a heavy tree.

Brush away the soil on the top of the root ball. Remove enough soil to expose the point where the trunk flares a bit and meets the true roots. That is the top of the true root ball, and you’ll measure from here to determine the depth of your planting hole. This “new” top of the root ball should sit at the soil line.

Is your tree in a container? If so, lay the tree down and gently ease it out of the container to check for circling roots. Roots that have been circling the root ball will continue to grow and can eventually girdle the base of trunk, affecting the vigor and longevity of your tree. Cut through any circling roots you find.

If you’re planting a tree or shrub that is in burlap and a metal basket instead of a container, remove as much of the basket and burlap as possible once the tree is in the planting hole and positioned the way you want it. A sharp utility knife for the burlap and heavy bolt cutters for the basket may be needed. The wider the planting hole, the easier this part dof the job will be. You can pre-cut most of the basket before positioning the root ball in the planting hole, leaving just a few wires intact until you get the root ball positioned in the hole.

Make your planting hole at least twice as wide but no deeper than the root ball you’ve measured. The planting hole should be bowl shaped, not straight sided. Once your new tree is positioned in the hole, put back the same soil you took out of the hole — no compost, sand, potting mix, etc. should be mixed into the backfill soil.

Water in your new tree well and monitor the soil moisture. Newly planted trees and shrubs usually need to be watered deeply about twice a week during their first year. This early in the year, Mother Nature may take care that for you temporarily if our wet weather continues through the late winter and early spring, but you need to be checking every few days to avoid drought-stress problems.

Do not fertilize the first year. You tree needs to focus on good root development. Fertilizer would push green growth instead of root growth.

February gardening tips

Here are a few small, timely gardening tips for February:

  • February is a good time to get your mower blade sharpened or replaced. You’ll avoid the early summer rush.
  • If you’ve been storing summer bulbs, take a few minutes to sort through them and remove any that smell bad or look soft or discolored to prevent fungal decay from spreading to healthy bulbs.
  • Watch online seed catalogs for special offers. Many companies offer free shipping or discounts on orders placed before the end of winter.
  • Shovels, hoes, pruners and other tools should have been cleaned and sharpened before storage in the fall, but if you didn’t get it done then, take time now to get your tools ready for the new gardening season.
  • Order your bare root trees, shrubs, grapes and berries so they can be shipped to you at the right time.


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