David Robson Extension Educator, Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois
Yard & Garden
Tender Loving Tree Care for Your Trees
Fall is a good time to take care of feeding your trees
A child is born. You feed it and change its diapers for a couple of years. However, if you’re lucky, you only have to feed it for about 18 more years. Hopefully by the time it’s someplace between 18 and 22, you can let it go, hoping it can fend for itself.
People can live to be 80 to 100 years old. So can trees.
A tree is planted. You water it a couple times, and then within two months, you declare that it’s on its own.
Do you see the inequity there?
We can expound on and on about the value of trees. They become a part of the family. They don’t ask for money or the car keys. They don’t want the latest in fashions. They don’t backtalk or listen to music you can’t begin to understand.
The trees are there year after year, providing cooling summer shade and maybe shelter for a family of cardinals.
Yet we leave them to their own devices, to live or die dependent on the whims of nature.
Now, I’m not advocating you treat your kids the same way you do trees. Just the opposite – treat your trees like your kids. Make an investment in your trees and hopefully they’ll be around in your old age.
That means when they’re young you need to give them that glass of water for the first two or three years, not two or three months.
And you need to continually provide them some food, even after they should be old enough to fend for themselves.
Which brings us to right now. Fall is a great time to fertilize trees.
Ideally, tree feeding should be based on how much the tree is growing. That can be determined by looking at the terminal bud scale scars and measuring the growth between each set. On the down side, it’s difficult on older trees to get up in the branches with a ruler. It’s easy on younger trees, looking for the rings stacked on top of each other that circumvent the limb.
Ideal and reality sometimes don’t mix, and it might be better to just decide that it’s time to fertilize the tree.
Now, lots of folks will say if you fertilize your lawn regularly, say two to three times a year, you’re probably providing enough food for your trees as the nitrogen leaches down, especially if you received excessive rain this year which washed nitrogen past grass and tree roots.
Other folks will point to the woods and say “who fertilizes those plants?” Well, the response is two-prong.
First, trees get fed in the wild by nitrogen in rain, decomposing leaves and animal droppings.
Second, forested trees have a different soil environment than urban trees. We tend toward the manicured lawns, removing grass clippings and tree leaves that might recycle some of the nutrients.
So, that leads us back to fall fertilizing, which won’t benefit the tree this fall but definitely help it grow next spring.
It’s an easy process that involves a bag of 10-10-10 (or close) garden fertilizer without weed killer (important), a three-quarter inch metal rod at least 2 feet long (rebar is great), a hammer and a 6 ounce cup.
As soon as you see leaves start to turn color, at the end of September to the middle of October, start at the drip line of the tree and drive the rod 18 inches deep. Pull the rod out, which is why you want it at least 2 feet long, and move 3 feet around the tree. Hammer the rod in again. Pull it out, move 3 feet. Keep doing this until you’ve gone around the tree.
This is your initial line. Do the same thing 3 feet toward the trunk of the tree.
Now, move 3 feet past the drip line of the tree and create a third ring of holes. It should be a square pattern, with each hole about 3 feet from the next.
Fill each hole with about 6 ounces of the garden fertilizer.
Make sure the area receives moisture throughout the fall, winter and early spring.
Feeding a tree probably won’t help a tree that’s dying or diseased severely.
And don’t overfeed. You may add too much nitrogen in the groundwater, which doesn’t benefit anyone.
David Robson is an Extension Educator, Horticulture, at the Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois Extension, P.O. Box 8199, Springfield, IL 62791. Telephone: 217-782-6515.
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