Tree Myths Part One

Danny Lauderdale, Horticulture Agent North Carolina Cooperative Extension Pitt County

Trees should be long lived if plant selection, soil preparation, planting, mulching, establishment, and maintenance are done right. Unfortunately they don’t always live long. Since trees are so much a part of our lives including our yards, neighborhoods, parks, communities, cities, towns, and forests, everyone has ideas and opinions about trees. Some of these ideas and opinions about trees have led to tree myths, so let’s review a few.

Myth #1:
Buy the largest tree you can find. This is not always the best idea. If the tree is container grown and you find a 4-5 foot tall tree in a 10 gallon container and one of the same type that is 6-7 feet tall in a 10 gallon container, I would get the smaller tree. The larger one may be root bound with circling roots in the container that will result in a poor developing root system in the landscape. Large field dug trees take longer to establish since they may lose 90% of their root system when dug at the nursery.

Myth #2:
Trees should always or never be fertilized at planting. Some say that you never fertilize trees with nitrogen at planting. Some say never put fertilizer in the planting hole. Some say that new trees should always be fertilized with phosphorus. First, soil test to determine what is deficient in the soil and apply what is recommended. Extra phosphorus will not help root growth if there is already plenty in the soil. Second, do not apply fertilizers with nitrogen when plants should not be actively growing. Avoid fertilization in late summer to early fall (September-October) and in late winter (January-February). Third, it is better to fertilize a large area like a mulched planting bed with many trees and shrubs than to fertilize a small confined area. If trees are planted in a fertilized lawn then there is no need to fertilize the trees separately.

Myth #3:
You should amend the soil in tree planting holes. This one is often debated but the general consensus is do not amend individual planting holes. Large planting beds can be amended with composted organic material to improve the soil.

Myth #4:
Do not disturb the roots of trees at planting. Container grown plants may have circling roots. These circling roots can be pruned by slicing several inches into the root ball in 6 to 8 places around it. Do not plant trees that have extreme circling roots. Field dug plants should have as much artificial non-degradable materials removed as possible once the plant is set in the hole. This means to cut at least the top half of the wire basket and burlap away. Also on field dug plants make sure the top of the root ball is where the first roots are. The stem should widen at the base and you should be able to feel the first large roots right at the surface of the root ball. If not then remove soil from the top until you do.

Myth #5:
Compact the soil around trees when you plant them so they don’t fall over. The soil that goes back in the hole should be broken up and not compacted. Water the tree in well to remove air pockets without compacting the soil. Compacted soil slows root and overall plant growth.

Myth #6:
All trees should be staked after planting. Trees only need to be staked if required in the specifications. Some say only to stake trees if they won’t stand up. That is true in very young bare root trees. If you are purchasing a tree to go into a landscape and it will not stand up without a stake then you don’t want that tree. Trees develop thicker and stronger trunks faster if they are allowed to sway with the wind.

Myth #7:
More mulch around trees is better. This is not true for mulch depth. Never put mulch against the trunks of trees. Tree mulch should be placed shallow and wide around trees. Two to four inches deep but again not against the trunk and two to three times the diameter of the root ball, just like the width of the planting hole. As trees grow the mulch ring should expand in diameter as well.

There are too many myths to list them all in one week. Check out this article next week for more tree myths. If you are interested in learning more about trees and helping out the community at the same time, I encourage you to participate in Greenville Community Tree Day on Saturday, November 8. The event is sponsored by ReLeaf and the City of Greenville. You can learn more about ReLeaf and the Community Tree Day by visiting If you have gardening questions contact the Pitt County Master Gardeners at 252-902-1705 or