What better way to celebrate Earth Day or Arbor Day than by planting a tree? A lot of us can’t afford the cost of purchasing and installing a large boxed tree, so we end up buying a 1- or 5-gallon size with the hope our small investment will produce a big, healthy specimen (after plenty of time and TLC). Unfortunately, smaller trees can come with pitfalls – like producing “lollipop” look-alikes or root-bound specimens that blow over in a windstorm. But you can avoid these problems if you just follow some easy instructions.

One gallon tree

Many gardeners plant small 1-gallon trees, but you have to care for them properly for them to grow into big, healthy beauties.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Bradley Lenet

One gallon tree after

This 4-year-old live oak started out small, and with minimal pruning to prevent cross branches, it’s grown quite well!

Photo Credit: Jennifer Bradley Lenet

Lollipop tree

Without good pruning, your little tree could turn into a lollipop.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Bradley Lenet

Pruning sketches

Follow these simple steps to a healthy, strong tree (pruning where indicated).

Photo Credit: Jennifer Bradley Lenet

First, pick the best tree – and that doesn’t mean the tallest and biggest in the row. Often the largest trees are root-bound and can’t anchor its bigger crown in a brisk windstorm. So check out that root system! Ask your garden center or nursery professional to help you remove the tree from its pot so you can take a look at what lies below.

If the tree is pot-bound, the roots will circle – often at the surface, but more likely at the side of the pot or on the bottom. A healthy tree will have healthy, fine, fibrous roots extending to the container’s edge, but they won’t circle or create a tight mesh of roots along it. Also, make sure the roots aren’t brown, water-soaked or falling apart when you touch them. Look for creepy crawlies in the pot, too. Healthy, active earthworms are a good sign. Ants aren’t.

Be sure to choose a straight trunk with a few well-spaced, insect- and disease-free branches to provide your young tree with a healthy start. It’s okay to have a few smaller branches lower on the trunk, but avoid suckering from below the grafting point. Tell the garden center or nursery professional where you want the tree in your yard – to make sure you’ve got the right plant for the right location. Don’t forget to consider the tree’s proposed mature height and width as well.

When you get your new tree home, prepare the hole. Dig it twice the diameter of the rootball’s width and depth. Next, combine a good organic planting mix or quality mulch with your native soil to make a half-and-half backfill and add it to the bottom of the hole. Tamp it down, add water and let it drain.

Place the tree in the hole, and check to be sure it won’t be lower or higher in your garden than it was in the pot. (If it’s too low in the hole, add more soil.) Once it’s at the right height, fill in the sides of the planting hole with your soil mix and add a small handful of organic fertilizer to the soil. Tamp it down, and water the tree deeply. Let it drain, then fill the basin with water again. If the tree sinks, remove it and add more soil to adjust its height. Once your tree’s finally at the right level, mulch around the base (keeping the material 2 inches away from the trunk).

During your tree’s first summer, select the upright shoot you want to become the leader. Pinch or cut out any small branches that compete with it. Don’t cut off the leafy shoots or branches along the trunk below the major limbs. Come winter, cut back any side branches on the trunk that have grown too long (but not the permanent scaffold branches). Cut back these long branches to about a foot from the trunk, to two of the branch’s own side branches (see illustration) or to two buds. Leave all other growth along the trunk.

In its second summer, if the leader reaches 8 feet tall or more, pinch out the tip of the leader (the top of the main trunk of the tree) if it’s at the height you want, or “head it back” by cutting more of the leader down to the desired height, keeping it balanced with the other branches of the tree. The topmost bud will produce an upright shoot. Several buds 1-2 feet below it will grow and become permanent limbs. Also, pinch or head back overly vigorous branches on the trunk.

Once winter sets in, select evenly distributed branches to form the tree’s scaffold limbs. Thin out any twiggy, badly placed branches in the developing crown. If necessary, shorten side branches as described for the first winter, but leave all other growth along the trunk.

In the tree’s third summer, just let the scaffold branches develop. Head back any that make the tree lopsided. Pinch or head back vigorous branches along the trunk. During its third winter, thin out any badly placed branches in the crown and shorten long side branches. Leave your tree alone the next summer, but in its fourth winter, cut off branches below the scaffold limbs.

After that, follow pruning directions for your specific tree type. Don’t forget to keep your tree well-watered with a slow, deep watering, and choose a general-purpose, slow-release, organic fertilizer to apply each spring.

While all this pruning may sound like a lot of work, it’s really not too bad because it’s spread out over a number of years. Besides, can you think of a better way to celebrate Earth Day or Arbor Day than with a beautiful new tree to shape, grow and enjoy?