Part of a living system, trees are only as healthy as the soil, water, companion plants, fungi and pollinators that support them. The biggest challenges I see for many trees is that they are isolated, growing in compacted soil and lack proper irrigation and companion planting. As the earth awakens in spring, we can feed the systems and life that sustain our trees so that we have shade in summer, fruit in fall and a healthier, more beautiful environment all year. I recommend walking around your property this spring to take the time to think about how these five tips might help your trees thrive.
1. Apply a woodsy mulch. The number one tip I recommend to improve tree health is to apply a layer of woodsy mulch. A woodsy mulch reduces soil compaction so trees can spread their roots, increases organic matter for the trees to eat and retains water for the trees to drink. The ideal mulch is comprised of branches and twigs less than 2.5 inches in diameter run through a chipper. These small twigs have the highest proportion of essential nutrients that release into the soil as they decompose. Start six inches away from the trunk of the tree and spread your mulch in a thick layer (2-6 inches deep) at least as wide as its canopy. If there is any weed cloth in this area remove it first. Weed cloth can deprive the soil of oxygen and compact the soil.
2. Plant tree companions. Create a living mulch system by planting beneficial plants around your trees. Deep-rooted plants harvest minerals and nutrients then decompose on the soil's surface, feeding the mycelial networks that enrich the soil. Companion plants like comfrey and nettles attract pollinators and predator insects that keep pests in check without chemical sprays. By increasing the diversity of our planting we invite a variety of insects, microorganisms and fungi into the understory that benefit our trees.
3. Prune. Spring is a great time to prune trees. Fruit trees should be pruned in early spring before any sign of leaves or flowers, while shade trees can be pruned until late May. Proper pruning improves tree structure, decreases the risk of falling branches and increases light and air for bigger, riper fruit. Start by removing dead and crossing branches. Have a clear purpose when removing any living branches. The pruned material can be chipped up right beneath the tree to add to your woodsy mulch.
4. Water. Here in the high desert, it is important to make sure your trees don't go thirsty. With the abundant snow this season, there is plenty of moisture on the ground now, but our trees are still recovering from the extreme drought last year. Trees can take three to five years to reboot after even a short drought. Water trees regularly and deeply, but be sure the soil has time to dry and drain in between each irrigation. Overwatering can starve the soil of precious oxygen.
5. Plant more trees! You can plant new trees in spring as soon as you can dig into the soil. Plant your tree so that the trees themselves feed all of these living systems as well as us. As they shed their leaves and branches, they provide mulch; as they increase the mycelial networks, they support other plants; as they flower they attract pollinators and predator insects; and as they root, they hug the water that is our precious life in the high desert.
Kevin Clayton is a certified arborist.
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