Strategies for successful tree planting this winter

When I plant a tree, I expect it to be there for 100 years… or more! That doesn’t always happen. We planted a tulip poplar in 1979 and it grew beautifully into an 80-foot tree but was blown down, completely uprooted, during Hurricane Michael. In retrospect, I believe the tree would still be standing if we had not planted it in the open where it stood all by itself, exposed to Michael’s wind gusts.

We should have planted it a mere 20 feet away at the edge of the existing urban woodland that we maintain along the canopy road on Centerville Road. The trees clustered together in this piece of woods – winged elm, swamp chestnut oak, black cherry, live oak – all stood together, protecting each other.

Choosing a tree

There are so many trees from which to choose. When you visit a plant nursery, have an idea of the amount of sunshine you have in your yard and how large you would like the tree to grow in the future.

Also, dig down into the soil and be able to describe the texture of the soil – very sandy, heavy clay, loamy clay, rich dark soil, and so on. Does the spot where you want to plant collect water after rainfall? Different trees have different soil, moisture, and light requirements.

A guide to proper tree planting. Illustration by Native Nurseries of Tallahassee. (Photo: Native Nurseries)

A guide to proper tree planting. Illustration by Native Nurseries of Tallahassee. (Photo: Native Nurseries)

Planting a tree

By far the biggest mistake people make in tree planting is digging a hole too deep and burying the roots too deeply. This will cause the tree to decline over time and eventually die. Dig a very wide but shallow hole, only deep enough so the root ball is planted slightly higher than the ground.

Unfortunately, this problem is exacerbated by the sometimes shoddy work that happens at some wholesale nurseries. Often the trees are planted too deeply in the pots when transplanted from small pots to larger pots.

It is very important to scrape the soil away from the top of the root ball until you reach the first side root of the tree. There may be an inch or even two of soil to remove depending on how many times the tree has been transplanted during the growing process. The root flare should be placed slightly above the ground level.

Volunteers helped plant more than 165 trees in the Apalachee Regional Park in honor of Arbor Day. (Photo: Courtesy Leon County)

Volunteers helped plant more than 165 trees in the Apalachee Regional Park in honor of Arbor Day. (Photo: Courtesy Leon County)

The best time to plant a tree is during winter. Florida’s Arbor Day is always scheduled in the prime planting time of January. Trees are dormant in winter and will not require as much watering as ones planted in the warmer months.

We often think that bigger is better, but in the case of trees, I believe you can achieve greater success by planting smaller trees. I have noticed that bare root seedlings of native trees when planted in winter are particularly robust. Their roots have never been confined in containers. Younger trees in three-gallon containers and seven-gallon containers have had less time to become root bound and, when planted correctly, grow very quickly.

What do scientists have to say about this? Researchers at the University of Florida advise that if irrigation cannot be provided for the recommended period after planting, smaller nursery stock should be planted to ensure survival. UF also reports that because small trees establish more quickly, they are better able to compete with weeds and they become wind-firm sooner than larger nursery stock, which is important in storms.

Another mistake many folks make is piling pine straw or leaf mulch up around the trunk of the tree. Use a four foot diameter of mulch, but keep it away from the trunk to avoid causing fungus issues. If you use a maintenance service, hold them accountable if they weed whack the base of the trunk. Spread enough mulch around the tree to keep mowers away from the trunk.

Water is important for success. Water regularly, several times per week if possible in the heat of the first summer, then move towards once per week, and then as needed. The tree will need to be watered through droughts for the first few years until it becomes established.

As more development occurs in Leon County, consider choosing native trees, especially if you are concerned about habitat for birds and other wildlife. The latest research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported on, shows how quickly songbird populations fall off when neighborhoods are planted primarily with non-native trees and shrubs.

Native plants produce many more caterpillars and other insects which birds feed their young. The study concluded that in areas made up of less than 70 percent native plants, Carolina chickadees will not produce enough young to sustain their populations. At 70 percent or higher, the birds can thrive.

Something you can do at home to affect positive ecological change is to plant native trees and shrubs. This does not mean that everything in your yard must be native.

In our yard we try to increase the percentage of native plants every year. When the old rose of Sharon aged out and died, we replaced it with a blue beech tree. When we removed all the invasive nandinas, we replaced them with Florida anise, agarista, needle palm, bluestem palmetto and American beautyberry.

One section of sunny lawn became a butterfly pollinator garden. What was once 100 percent non-native (except for the pines and oaks), 27 years later is closer to 90 percent native. The Carolina chickadees are very happy!

Holiday Gift Guide for Nature Lovers

If someone in your life loves gardening and nature, look no further than your locally owned garden center for useful and unique gifts to give this holiday season. Here at Native Nurseries, we’ve gathered a few sure-to-be-treasured items to get your inspiration flowing for that special nature lover on your shopping list.

Gardener’s Delight

A fruit tree, “the gift that keeps on giving,” is a special delight for any gardener. A blueberry bush, fig tree, satsuma or Meyer lemon tree are just a few examples that are sure to not disappoint. Likewise, a gift basket of Johnny Jump-ups or woodland wildflowers would be a pleasure to anyone's yard. Maybe a container garden of winter herbs, lettuces and salad greens for the friend that enjoys cooking with fresh ingredients out their back kitchen door.

Other gardening gifts include seed starting kits, garden statuary, houseplants, heirloom seed packages, gardening gloves, outdoor solar lanterns, wind chimes, colorful pots, books, fragrant Fraser fir wreaths and festive amaryllis bulbs.

Birds and the Bees

Give the gift of native plants that keep the songbirds singing, garden bees pollinating and other wildlife thriving in yards and gardens. I know my native plant friends would be very happy with a budding native azalea, providing spring color and nectar for pollinators. Or consider a yaupon holly tree, loaded with bright red berries for cedar waxwings, catbirds, robins and other birds.

Bird feeding supplies, a bird field guide, a new pair of binoculars, bird baths and houses are excellent gift ideas for those backyard bird watchers on your list. You can put together a fun gift basket by choosing an assortment of seed, a basic feeder and our unique to Tallahassee bird checklist. These gifts will delight the bird lover in your life every day of the year.

For the person who already has a basic feeder, try a special feeder that will draw different types of birds. For instance, a thistle sock for goldfinch or a suet feeder along with our homemade suet for warblers and other non-seed eating birds. Other bird friendly gifts include adorable bird seed ornaments, wreath shaped nesting material, hummingbird feeders, purple martin gourds or nest boxes for bluebirds, flycatchers and wood ducks.

Bee houses for native pollinators, such as mason and leaf cutter bees, have become quite popular and make very unique gifts. Children and adults can gain knowledge and enjoyment watching the interactions of these native bees. Bat houses and butterfly rearing houses are also fun, engaging ways to inspire a love of the natural world at home.

Children and Nature
Nature inspired gifts are a great way to encourage kids who haven’t quite fallen for nature to get outside and explore more. Bug viewers can be lots of fun for those into creepy-crawlies, or perhaps fairy gardening accessories for a magical introduction to gardening. DIY kits make wonderful gifts because they often give kids a hands-on opportunity that they may not have otherwise. From bluebird nest box kits to our ‘Happy Home’ butterfly rearing houses, these are the kinds of gifts that continue giving long after the boxes are opened. Other gifts available in the children’s nature nook include garden tools and gloves, wildlife puppets, critter counting books, bird-themed puzzles, and games.

Garden to Table: Garlic Chive Pesto!!


My current favorite pesto recipe! We have some pretty garlic chives and Italian parsley in stock. The weather is changing and gives inspiration to try new things.



1 hearty bunch of garlic chives
1  good handful of parsley
¼ cup cashews
¼ to ½ cup olive oil, depending on the consistency you like
Juice of ½ lemon
¼ cup parmesan or romano cheese or nutritional yeast to keep it vegan
Pinch or two of salt


Throw it all in the food processor and enjoy. If you want it really garlicky, add a clove
of garlic.