The process of caring for your trees really comes down to the selection of trees, says Joe Boggs, assistant professor at Ohio State Extension, Hamilton County in Cincinnati.

Joe Boggs
Joe Boggs

“You get what you pay for when you buy a cheap tree. What we see very often are things going sideways at the time of selecting trees,” he adds.

The area’s soil does limit what kind of trees can thrive in the greater Cincinnati area because typically the soil holds high amounts of clay. Clay isn’t entirely bad because it holds nutrients, he says. But that type of soil can cause bad drainage issues. Trees in poor drainage don’t do well. Plus, you need to know what pH your soil tests out at.

“Take the time to do your research. It’s just like going to buy a car or appliance,” Boggs says. “If you spend a considerable amount of money on a tree, go ahead and get a tree that will perform that way you hope it will perform.”

Get Soil Tested Before Buying

Many extension offices and big box stores across the state offer soil testing labs. However, Boggs’ office does not. The easiest thing to do, he says, is go online and find out how the process can be completed. The cost is minimal, such as $15, depending on where you go.

The soil testing won’t be just for your tree planting. If your lawn isn’t looking very good, you can find out the nutrients missing from the ground to improve all your plants and turf, he adds.

“In general, our soil in some parts of Cincinnati is usually high with alkaline. In other parts, it is the complete opposite,” he adds.

A soil test becomes well worth the money. It’s like a blood test for the soil, he says.

Selection of Trees

If you really want to see what a tree will do, go to a place where there are trees, Boggs says.

He suggests one of the best places in Cincinnati to drive through is the Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum, the third-largest cemetery in America. The area started in the 1840s and continues to be well-managed. Most folks believe it’s just a cemetery. But you can drive around to witness how big some trees actually get.

People do ask Boggs for recommendations of trees. He suggests Swamp White Oak or Burrow White Oak.

Swamp white oak
Swamp white oak is a good choice for Cincinnati. Credit: Line1, CC by SA 3.0.

“They tend to do well here. The white oak group of trees do well. However, remember that placement of such a large tree becomes crucial,” he says.

For instance, the swamp white oak can spread 50 feet at maturity. He sees this all the time when people plant trees too close to a structure or power lines. When it grows up into power lines, trimmers come along and top the tree. That can lead to the tree dying.

Risks can happen, too, when selecting nonnative tree. The Colorado blue spruce grew to be very popular in this region.

“But we forgot the word ‘Colorado.’ Problems have caught up with that tree. They are failing,” Boggs explains.

You can go to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Center website to find more picks for all types of trees and shrubs that do well in the greater Cincinnati area.

Planting

The International Society of Arboricultural manages TreesAreGood.org, an educational website that provides the public with tree care information.

Ideally, your new trees should be planted during the dormant season – in the fall or early spring, it says.

“You need to understand that when you plant a tree, you need to know where the roots are going to go to,” Boggs adds. “And while planting that tree, if you have to use a jackhammer to dig up the earth, you really need to think about modifying the soil so that tree has a chance to grow.”

He suggests digging a hole that is bowl-shaped. This allows the roots of the tree, which don’t grow deep but outward, to get enough oxygen from the soil. After planting, your backfill should include about one-third of compost if you have a lot of clay in the soil.

Pruning

Never prune that new tree at all, he says. A lot of misinformation has been passed down such as the top of a tree needs to be “balanced out” with the roots.

“But with all plants, it creates its food in the leaves. You basically are cutting away the tree’s food machinery,” Boggs says. “Trees can get away for a while with roots being damaged, but not when its food machinery gets damaged.”

Most trees take about five to seven years to become fully established. He suggests that not pruning until a few years after it has become established.

“Leave the top alone unless you are starting to see branches that don’t belong.  Look around to see if any branches are crossing each other. If they are, take one off,” he adds.

Fertilizing

“Do not fertilize that tree, unless the soil test says you need to do it,” Boggs says. “If you over-fertilize a tree, you can put that tree in a bad situation, and it makes the tree susceptible to tree borers.

Watering

You need to water it very well after planting it to help the soil to settle around the roots. If you see loose soil settle, put a little more water, he adds.

When you do water the newly planted tree, don’t want to overwater.

“You aren’t growing rice. But periodically, dig down with fingers below mulch to feel the moisture level. When it becomes very dry, add some water,” he says.

Lack of water seems to be the most prevalent problem why trees fail. People plant a tree in the spring. Then hot weather comes in the summer. People go on vacation for a few weeks. The area gets no rain, and no one is watering the tree.

“That can be disastrous. You need to get a slow-release watering tool to help in this situation,” Boggs recommends.

Mulching

Immediately after planting a tree, you should mulch around it, but don’t pile up mulch on the trunk itself. You want to hold in the moisture after you watered, but you don’t want a rot-inducing “mulch volcano.”

“Mulch is your best friend,” he says. “It will help the soil not dry out and keep soil temperatures from cooling or heating up too much.”

Main image credit: My Camera and Me, CC by SA 2.0.