By Robert Lucke
Havre and the Hi-Line have a long tradition of planting trees to turn prairies into small belts of forest lands. Whether it be in towns or shelterbelts around farms and ranches, planting trees is very important in this part of Montana. Old-timers have said that for early day Fourth of July parades when there was not a tree growing in Havre, children would go down by the river and cut willows and "plant" them along the parade route to give the appearance of something green growing along dusty streets.
Tree planting traditions have continued through the years, with Arbor Day being one of the best times to plant even more trees in Havre's urban forest.
Heidi Bischoff, sanitarian at the Hill County Health Department, has some tips for successful tree planting. She said that newly planted trees need moderate temperatures and rain to successfully root and grow. They also need time to root and acclimate to the surrounding climate prior to the intense heat and dry conditions of summer and also to the freezing temperatures of winter in Montana. Therefore, spring is the preferred planting season for Montana due to its very cold winters.
"Planting methods do vary from types of trees, but generally the same procedure should be followed," she said. "A common mistake is digging a hole too deep or too narrow. Roots don't have sufficient oxygen in too deep a hole, and too narrow a hole limits the roots' ability to expand and anchor the tree properly to the ground."
A good rule of thumb is trees should be transplanted no deeper than the soil in which they were originally grown. Dig the width of the hole at least three times the diameter of the root ball or the container in which the tree grew. In the case of a bare-root tree, spread the roots out and dig the diameter at least three times the width of the roots.
If you are planting in clay soil, avoid "glazing." Glazing occurs when the sides and bottom of the hole become smooth and form a barrier to which water is unable to get through. Use a fork to break up a glaze if this occurs. Another tip with clay soil is to raise the bottom of the hole slightly higher than the surrounding area. This raised area allows water to disperse and reduces the pooling of water in the planting zone.
Balled and burlapped trees should be planted right away, but they can be stored for awhile if the ball is kept moist and stored in a shaded area. These types of trees should only be lifted by the root ball. All string and twine should be removed. A combination of peat moss, composted manure and topsoil should be backfilled into the hole just to the height of the ball or slightly lower to allow for settling. Do not compress the backfill as this can prevent water from reaching the roots of the tree.
Container trees can also be stored for a short period of time as long as the soil is kept moist and it's stored in a shady area. The procedure for planting a container tree is the same as burlap/balled trees. Just be sure to remove the container completely before planting. If the tree has woody roots that are extremely compacted, use a spade to open up the bottom half of the root system and spread the roots apart before planting.
"Planting bare-rooted trees is different than the previously described trees," Bischoff said. "Plant bare-rooted trees as soon as possible after purchase because they don't have any soil surrounding the roots to keep them moist and protected."
Bischoff said that when buying a bare-rooted tree, look for healthy conditions like moisture on the roots and many lengths of fine root hairs. Prune any broken or damaged roots prior to planting but save as much of the root system as possible. To plant this type of tree, build a cone of soil in the center of the hole around which to spread the roots. A proper fit in the hole is obvious when the trunk flare is visible and the crown where the roots and top meet is approximately 2 inches above the soil level to allow for settling.
Bischoff recommended contacting local greenhouses or landscaping companies for further information about tree planting and maintenance. Or contact Bischoff at (406) 265-5481.