Sometimes it is truly hard to see the forest for the trees! I have lived in Columbia since 1979, and I realized this past summer that I have never paid attention to the magnificent flowering crape myrtles that robustly bloom all summer long in neighborhoods, parks and commercial settings. These gorgeous trees inspired me to research flowering trees for every season in our gardens in the Midlands. Gardeners in this area really can have lovely blossoms all season long if they plan properly and get to work now, planting flowering trees. Our mild winters are the perfect time to plant trees, so let’s get to work!
Trees are the largest and most permanent of all elements in a landscape. They dictate what is growing around them and provide shelter for all sorts of animals and insects. They also offer varied recreation for children and grown-ups alike. Tree houses, swings, a bench surrounding the trunk of a beautiful strong tree all evoke wonderful feelings of beauty and relaxation. This article is specifically about adding flowering trees to the garden to prolong bloom time, adding texture to the garden with beautiful bark, flowers and even fall color. Think of all the gorgeous crape myrtles that bloom from April to October, or even November. I challenge you to pay closer attention to flowering trees this spring. I think you’ll be amazed at how many there are.
Study the Sight
Study your garden to find the perfect place for a flowering tree. Keep in mind what the mature size of the tree will be when choosing a spot. Look at the spot from inside the house, from the street and from a favorite perch in the garden.
Once you have determined the optimum spot for your new tree, determine whether it is a dry, wet or boggy spot. Is the soil acidic, alkaline, sandy or clay? If the site is next to a concrete or brick driveway or walkway, consider trees that have more of a taproot than shallow spreading roots so that the hardscape will not be damaged by the roots as they grow. Consider the shade that the tree will cast at maturity; will that affect the grass or will it block a window? These are all important things to consider when planting a tree.
Live in an apartment, condominium or just don’t have another inch in your garden? Have no fear. Many of these trees, such as crape myrtle and vitex, do very well in containers for a long time. Choose a pleasing container that is two to three times larger than the container or root ball of the tree. Make sure the container has plenty of holes for good drainage. Use a high quality medium weight potting soil and plant as you would if it were going in the ground. Pay particular attention to the roots. Massage them so that they are not growing around in a circle. You want them to spread out in the container to extend the life of the tree. If the container is going to be on a wooden deck, it is a good idea to put the container on “feet.” There are lots to choose from, from very simple designs to ornate lion’s head risers. Three to four of them under the container should provide good drainage and ventilation so that the wood of the deck does not stay too wet and will dry between waterings.
Choosing a Tree
Trees can be found in nurseries and garden centers that are sold in various fashions. Some trees are container grown and can come in a wide variety of sizes from three-gallon up to hundreds of gallons. If you are planting the tree yourself without any large equipment, make sure you buy a container grown (or any other type) tree that is a manageable size. In my experience, container grown trees acclimate better to their new home in the garden and go through much less shock if planted properly and watered regularly during the first year.
Another way to buy a tree is to look for one that is “balled and burlapped.” This is sometimes referred to as “B and B” in nursery vernacular. These trees have been field grown and dug by machine or by hand and often placed in a wire basket wrapped in burlap. If you choose a “B and B” tree, make sure that the root ball is intact and that the tree is not completely dried out. Also handle the tree from the bottom and try not to lift it by the trunk. Lifting it from the trunk could pull the roots apart and make it less likely to thrive when it is planted. I recommend getting professional help if planting a large “B and B” tree. Some nurseries sell bare-root trees by mail order. I would avoid these unless it is the only option.
Quick Guide to Buying a Healthy Tree:
• Buy from a reputable local nursery or garden center.
• Look for broken branches or injured bark. This can admit disease to the tree, so avoid trees with this damage.
• Any tree that is balled and burlapped should look just as healthy as it would if it were growing in the ground.
• If buying a dormant tree, use your fingernail to scratch one of the branches. There should be healthy, green tissue underneath the bark.
A Tree for Every Season
Following is a list of trees that thrive in the Midlands to provide blooms for every month of the year. January: Flowering apricot, Taiwan Cherry. February: Sauce Magnolia, Star Magnolia, Winter Honeysuckle. March: Crabapple, Dogwood, Flowering Almond. April: Yoshino cherry, Kwanzan cherry, Eastern red bud, Dogwood. May: Southern Magnolia, Vitex, Fringe tree, Carolina Silverbell. June: Crape Myrtle, Magnolia, Mock Orange, Mimosa. July: Magnolia, Mimosa, Crape Myrtle, Oleander. August: Crape Myrtle, Oleander. September: Cassia, Tea Olive, Crape Myrtle. October: Cassia, Tea Olive, Camellia sasanqua. November: Tea Olive, Camellia japonica. December: Camellia japonica.
Planting Your Flowering Tree
Remember the old adage, “Don’t put a $50 tree in a $5 hole.” It still holds true. Site preparation for the tree is extremely important, and it’s imperative for the health of the tree. It can be compared to the foundation of a house. If the foundation is not prepared properly, the house will falter. The same goes for planting the tree. If the site is not prepared, the tree will not thrive.
The hole should be at least twice the width of the root ball and equal to the depth of the root ball. Loosen the soil around the edges and inside the hole so that the tender roots will be able to grow out into the surrounding ground. Make sure that the bottom of the hole is firm so that the tree will not settle too deeply into the hole. The tree should be planted at the same height it was growing in the container or in the field before it was dug and wrapped.
I like to add 3 to 4 cups of ERTH food and mix it into the existing soil. It helps to keep the soil loose and adds organic matter to the soil. Make sure that the tree is sitting straight in the hole. After the tree is securely planted in its new home, add the existing soil to fill the area not filled by the root and root ball. Many nurseries recommend leaving the burlap around the rootball of “B and B” trees. I prefer to remove it to make sure that the roots can start to grow into new soil as soon as possible. This helps the stability of the tree. Tamp the soil lightly and mulch with a thin layer of pine straw, hardwood mulch or shredded bark. Keep the area weeded and make sure the tree does not settle too deeply. If it does, replant at a higher level. If the tree is too low in the hole, it will not drain, the roots will rot and the tree will not thrive.
Container grown trees can be planted during most months of the year. Balled and burlapped trees should only be planted during the dormant season. January and February are perfect months to plant trees in Columbia.
Obviously, water is essential for the health and life of the tree. If the tree is planted during the dormant season, a good soaking once a week for the first month should be adequate. If the tree is planted during the hot summer months, more watering is necessary. It is important to monitor the tree no matter what time of the year it is planted. There really is no such thing as maintenance free gardening. All plants need some care. Newly planted trees will need more water than established trees. Trees that are three years old or older can usually survive on Mother Nature’s watering schedule. It is recommended to water during the morning so that the leaves have a chance to dry out before the evening. Dogwoods are susceptible to fungus disease, so be particular to water new dogwood trees in the morning and make sure they have good drainage.
Most new trees will not need additional fertilizer because there should be some in the soil they are growing in. A light organic, slow release fertilizer can be applied in March, May and July. It is beneficial to apply a low-nitrogen fertilizer such as 5-10-10 in September to enhance root growth during the dormant months.
The fruits of all your hard work this winter will pay off in the early, early spring when that first flowering tree bursts into bloom in your garden. Plant flowering trees now. You will be so glad you did!
Gardening Chores for January and February:
• Ride through our lovely neighborhoods and notice all of the early blooming trees. Make a list of the ones you find and highlight your favorites to add to your own garden.
• Stroll through your garden and mark areas that would be enhanced by a blooming tree. Add as many as you have room for. You will be so happy you did.
• And don’t forget, January and February are perfect months to add large trees and shrubs to the garden. They will experience less shock than they would if they were planted in July.
• Early season vegetables may be planted at the end of January. These include peas, collards, spinach, lettuce, leeks and mustards.
• Prune any dead limbs that you can manage in trees and shrubs.
• On warm days, get out in the garden and start preparing your beds for spring planting. Add organic matter. Pull winter weeds.
• Redefine planting beds. Remember my mantra: definition of space.
• Use coffee grounds as a fertilizer. Acid loving plants such as azaleas and camellias love coffee, too!
• Force flowering shrubs by cutting limbs and branches and bringing them into the warmth of the house. Quince and forsythia are both very easy to force in this manner.
• Traditionally, bare rooted roses should be planted in February. Visit local nurseries and choose a few for your garden.
• Now is a good time to prune holly ferns that have been damaged by the cold. Cut any brown fronds down to the ground.
• Prune liriope and mondo grass. Make sure that if you are using a weed eater or mower, that the blade is very sharp to make a nice, clean cut.
• Last but not least, plant a flowering tree.