8 tips for healthy trees

From planting to pruning, tree care made simple

One of the major themes for Earth Day 2016 is Trees for the Earth, with the goal to plant 7.8 billion trees over the next five years.

“I love all types of trees, from mighty oaks to evergreens  to ornamentals,” said Tom Johnson, a forester at Duke Energy. “Trees are essential and benefit us all in many ways, from cleaning our air and water to providing resources such as wood products and wildlife habitat.”

In recognition of Earth Day, which began in 1970, Duke Energy’s arborists offer the following tips so your newly planted sapling or established tree rises to the sky for decades to come.


1.  Plan before you purchase

Before heading off to your favorite home improvement store, consider the purpose of the tree. Will it be close to your home, used for shade or privacy or located in a high sun exposure area? Is it for aesthetics? Do you want deciduous or evergreen? Is a fast-growing tree important to you? Most importantly, for safety reasons, will it eventually grow into power lines?

Also, consider the environment where you will plant, such as soil and drainage. Airborne pollutants from industries and cars can also impact the growth of certain trees.

For help in making your decision, use the Arbor Day Foundation Tree Wizard. It only takes a minute.

You can also contact a county extension office for advice on the tress that grow best in your region.


2.  Selecting a healthy tree

Consider these options for selecting a smaller tree:

  • Bare root seedlings: Roots should be moist and fibrous. Deciduous seedlings should have roots about equal to stem length.

  • Ball and burlap: Root ball should be firm to the touch and adequate for the tree’s size.

  • Potted: Pot should not contain large, circling roots, and pruned roots should be cut cleanly with a sharp tool so they are not torn. Pruned roots should be covered with soil so that they do not dry out from exposure to open air.

When purchasing a tree, make sure it has a strong central leader for a trunk, well-developed branch structure, and bark that is secure and free of fungi.

3.  Know what’s below

To ensure your safety, be sure to know the location of underground lines before you dig. Finding out is easy and free; just call 811.


4.  Time to plant

In most areas for the majority of trees, the ideal time to plant is in the fall or early spring. Dig a saucer-shaped hole about three times as wide as the root ball and as deep as the root ball itself. It’s best if you place the tree so the top of the root ball is even with the ground.

If you are planting a ball and burlap tree, cut away any wire and burlap from the sides of the root ball.

Backfill the hole with soil, and be sure to tamp down the soil tightly so it does not settle and allow the tree to slump over.

Then pour mulch such as bark pieces 2 to 4 inches deep around the tree, but keep the mulch from touching the trunk.


5.  How much to water

For new trees, water immediately after planting.

Especially during the first two years, water often.

  • Maintain a damp but not soggy soil. Usually 30 seconds with a steady stream of water from a garden hose is sufficient. A deep soaking is more beneficial than frequent light waterings.

  • A damp soil that dries for a short period will allow adequate oxygen to permeate the soil.

  • To test the soil, insert a trowel about 2 inches into the soil. Then use your thumb to test the soil. If it is moist to the touch, do not water.

6.  When to prune

Light pruning to remove dead wood can be done anytime. When pruning to shape trees, winter is the best time, especially after the coldest part has passed. If you want 


to prune back a tree in spring or summer, do so right after seasonal growth is complete.

Avoid pruning during the fall, as decaying fungi spread their spores profusely and healing of tree wounds will take much longer.

7.  How to prune

Begin pruning after the first year of growth. When pruning, never “round” a tree as it’s not good for its health. Instead, locate the leader, and follow these rules:

  • Main branches should be at least one-third smaller than the diameter of the trunk.

  • Pruning cuts should not be at an arbitrary point on the limb, but rather, made so that a smaller branch can become the outermost limb.

  • 05-Trees

    When cutting a limb away from the main trunk be sure to cut outside of the branch collar (the raised area between the limb and trunk).

For more tips, view this animated tree pruning guide.

8.  Dealing with pests and disease

No matter how hard you work to maintain the health of your trees, disease or insect infestation may occur. You might notice deep ridges in bark, falling branches, fungi on bark or mushrooms around the base of a tree. To properly diagnose a tree health issue, contact a certified arborist or your county extension office. 


Safety alert: Use caution when trimming trees

  • Never trim trees near power lines; it can be deadly. In addition to a pruning tool touching a line, a ladder may fall into the line, delivering a fatal shock.

  • When pruning trees, be sure to wear heavy gloves and safety glasses. If you need to cut high branches, use a pole pruner, and be sure to wear a hard hat. You can get an inexpensive one at Lowe’s or The Home Depot.

  • If branches need to be cut that you can’t reach with a pole pruner, hire a professional; never trust a ladder. Make sure your tools are always clean and sharp.

  • Remember, falling branches can cause severe injury or even death.

  • Watch this video to learn why Duke Energy needs to trim trees near power lines.