How to Maintain a Tree Through the Next Decade

Your 10 Year Tree Maintenance Plan

Man planting evergreen tree
(Tetra Images - Daniel Grill/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images)

Specimen trees in the landscape need consistent care over time to ensure their continued health, proper conditions for growth and to prevent hazardous conditions that threaten surrounding property. Here is a tree care schedule developed by the United States Forest Service for a tree owner's use and listed according to tree care type.

Watering the Tree

The key to newly planted tree survival is providing adequate water.

Although the first 3 years are most critical, a tree's watering needs should be maintained for life. Initially, a newly planted tree needs to be properly watered with an adequate amount to pack the soil, to remove root-drying air and to moisten the root ball. On adequately draining soils, 5 gallons of initial water should be enough. Fast draining soils may need more frequent watering than a slow draining soil.

  • Year 1 - 3: It is most critical to provide adequate water during the annual growing season, between late spring and autumn.
  • Year 4 and after: You can relax a bit on tree watering in later years but water may be needed during long periods of drought.

Mulching the Tree

Mulching a newly planted tree ensures that moisture is available to roots over time and reduces grass competition. A good mulch (organic materials like leaves, bark, needles and fine wood chips) should ring the tree base (over the critical root zone) but never touch the tree.

No fertilizer is necessary when quality composted mulch is used.

  • Year 1 - 3: Maintain the mulch level with no more than 4 inches of material over the roots (the wider the better) but not touching the tree.
  • Year 4 and after: A tree appreciates a good mulch so it is appropriate to maintain adequate mulch levels annually during spring. Avoid using nitrogen fertilizers - use complete fertilizers only after a soil test.

    Staking the Tree

    Not all newly planted trees need staking to remain standing straight. Stake only if the root ball is unstable or the tree trunk is bending. Use only loosely tied, wide straps and limit the number of straps to a minimum for support.

    • Year 1 - 3: Use tree stakes only when needed. Many tree owners automatically stake every tree not knowing that it is often unnecessary. Check all stakes and straps during spring and autumn for loose fit and alter to prevent trunk damage. All straps should be removed after the first or second year.
    • Year 4 and after: Do not stake older trees!

    Cleaning the Root Collar

    Roots that encircle the trunk at the root collar can cause tree health and safety problems. A tree's root collar is its transition zone between stem and root at the ground line. Proper planting depth can go a long way toward keeping the root collar clean and free of encircling roots. Remember that piling soil or mulch against the root collar encourages "strangler" roots.

    • Year 1 - 3: Proper planting and mulching will go a long way toward solving most root collar problems. The first several years of growth after planting is when tree collar problems develop, so keep the collar exposed by removing soil and mulch. Over fertilization can speed up the process and make the condition worse.
    • Year 4 and after: Revisit and check the root collar every 4 years. Use a hand trowel to loosen and remove the soil around the base of the tree until the first set of roots is uncovered.

    Inspecting Tree Health

    Checking a tree's health may not only be subjective for a novice but determining the health of a tree is complicated and should be done by an expert. Still, there are things you can do that will alert you to tree health problems.

    Ask yourself these questions when inspecting a tree:

    1. Is the current year's growth much less than past years' growth? Although fast growth does not necessarily mean good health, a dramatic reduction in growth rate may be an indication of poor health.
    2. Are there dead limbs, odd colors on leaves and bark or a patchy crown? These tree symptoms can be the first indicators that a tree is unhealthy and should be inspected in detail.

      Remember that planting a healthy tree in the beginning is the best way to assure its future health!

      Pruning the Tree

      When pruning a newly planted tree, only prune critical branches and no others! Critical branches are those that are either dead or broken. You can also remove multiple leaders to leave only one central stem. It may be best to postpone pruning to avoid transplanting shock due to loss of leaves.

      • Year 1 - 3: Prune only critical branches or to eliminate extra leaders in the tree's first year. You will have plenty of time to form your tree so only prune lightly in Year 2 or 3.
      • Year 4 and after: Prune your tree for form and function every three years. As a rule of thumb, prune fruit trees every 1-3 years, prune deciduous shade trees every 5 years and evergreens only as needed.