Whether you’re planting one tree in your yard yourself or hiring a contractor to install
a complete landscape, the trees and shrubs can be one of the most important and costly
features. This is why it’s so important to do it right the first time. If done correctly you
will achieve a healthy thriving landscape sooner then you would think.
One of my favorite things to do as a certified arborist in Calgary is assess the trees
throughout private gardens. I get the opportunity to walk through yards in every nook
and cranny that the city has to offer and let me tell you I have seen some real gems. That
being said the biggest problem that stands out is improper tree planting and tree selection.
When it comes to basic consultation I meet with numerous clients and its always what’s
wrong with my tree and why is it not growing. In the newer communities where the
landscapes are new and the plants are young this is a real problem.
First of all if you plan on hiring a contractor do some homework and ask lots of
questions. In most cases it’s the pros making the mistakes. Landscapers are good at
constructing and in some cases selecting and planning the landscape process. They are
not tree specialists and rarely do they work with the landscape once it's finished. Hiring an
Arborist to review the plan may help to make some key changes to the final plan before
expensive mistakes are made. As Arborists we work with the trees in some cases for
twenty to thirty years after the fact so we can for see problems ten years down the road.
One simple rule of thumb is to put a five-dollar tree in a ten-dollar hole. In all cases the
money is spent on the biggest nicest trees available, but there is little to no prep done.
The secret to the success of all plants is the prep work. It’s so simple yet it’s never
completed properly and this is why the trees don’t do well. The key to any healthy
landscape is the prep work. First of all you need to consider the sunlight and the
drainage. All trees need well drained soils, even species that are tolerant of wet
conditions such as birch, willows and larch. A well drained soil has large pore spaces for
air, trees need to breath if there is a lack of air in the soil in most cases there will be too
much water. What makes a good soil? In Calgary the soils are extremely poor with a high
clay content. This means they have a high water holding capacity with extremely low
pore space for air. You do not want to plant any trees or shrubs within this medium. Your
trees will do poorly. In regards to the prep work depending on the scenario the grade will
have to be built up or dug down or both. I recommend a compost fill with a high organic
content with a depth of 18’’ to 24’’ at least. The more compost the better. A raised bed,
berm or mound works really well to achieve this. It also adds more interest to the
landscape. A soil with a high organic matter will recreate or kick start the ecology within
the soil. Which in time will help to improve the growing conditions and provide organic
fertilizer that will feed the plants over time. You will get the worms and other
microorganisms that will also feed on the organic matter. These organisms contribute to
good soil quality and aeration. It is ok to use a screened loam for fill, but it will still need
to be amended with compost. The more compost the better. A good example is within my
own yard I had to regrade to improve the drainage. I added 11 yards of loam and then I
put 5 yards of compost on top to amend the soils. With planting the soils will become
mixed over time.
The next key factor is good quality wood chip mulch. I prefer a small consistent wood
chip depending on the source it may be called different names such as Bow Point Premium.
Mulch is key because it adds a layer called the duff layer that would be found in the natural
forest where trees like to grow. There are many benefits to mulch. For one thing it
breaks down in to the soil adding to the organic matter and contributing to
the aeration. This is why I disagree with the use of landscape fabric. It creates a barrier
which inhibits the natural process you are trying to create and doesn’t work for weed
control. Mulch also insulates the roots keeping them cool and helps retain water on those
hot summer days.
The next step is to plant the tree. Another simple rule of thumb is that it takes one-year
per inch of caliber to reestablish after planting or transplanting. This means a tree with
a 4-5 inch root flare is going to take 4-5 years to reestablish the root system. It takes
roots to achieve shoots. The key is to get the trees through this period. This is why I
recommend planting smaller trees to begin with. Its more cost effective and you will
have greater success. If you decide to go the large tree rout that’s ok too, but don’t expect
a whole lot of anything for the first five years. This is if the trees were planted right.
Planting depth is VERY important. If the tree is planted to deep the tree will suffer from
the very begging and it’s very hard to fix. Please note the prep is done first and then the
trees are planted. A common mistake with big trees is they are planted first ( in the clay
soils ) then the landscape is constructed around them. We now know planting within the
clay is a bad thing. The roots of the tree need to be close to the surface to get the air the
breath. If they are to low the tree may not survive. Trees should always be planted at
the root flare. The next key factor when planting large caliber trees is that the basket be
removed or at least as much as possible. To do this you will need an oversized hole. On
average within ten to fifteen years your tree will have root issues do to the restrictions of
the basket. This is still a highly debated topic and most landscapers, nurseries and garden
centers still recommend they stay on. No matter what don t plant the tree in the basket. If
the landscaper doesn’t want to do this I would consider hiring someone else. Or I will be
cutting your tree down sooner then you would think.
Other tidbits of useful info, trees and grass are enemies. Without a tree well or bed the
grass will grow up to the trunk of the tree. The grass will always out compete the tree on
the prairies. You will get three times the growth with a tree well verses not. The tree well
will also prevent mower blight. (Wounding from mechanical damage from mowers and
If these basic principals are followed you will get the most out of your investment and
maximize the growth and health of your trees in Calgary. Bow Point Nursery located in
Springbank is a great resource for compost and mulch products.
Keegan Seward, Certified Arborist wrote this Article
The Arborest Expert Tree Service Ltd
Serving Calgary Since 1979