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Arborist offers advice on tree care

These trees at a location several miles away, on the other hand, have been what Bell calls "crape murdered," branches lopped too closely to the trunk. There's no need for such aggressive pruning, she said.

These trees at a location several miles away, on the other hand, have been what Bell calls "crape murdered," branches lopped too closely to the trunk. There's no need for such aggressive pruning, she said.

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Staff Photo: Crystal Tatum Arborist Debbie Bell said these crape myrtles at Newton County Library are an example of good pruning, as they've been slightly cut, with the dead seed heads still visible.

COVINGTON -- People often have good intentions when planting or caring for trees, but they may be doing it all wrong anyway.

With Arbor Day approaching -- it's on Feb. 17 -- Newton County Arborist Debbie Bell took some time to give tips on proper planting and pruning.

Now is the perfect time for planting, as trees are dormant in winter, Bell said. That's why Arbor Day is celebrated on the third Friday in February in Georgia rather than in late April, the national holiday.

"By then it's too late to plant here," Bell said.

Tree-planting time is November through February. The first step to planting is to make sure to find a spot that will leave adequate room for the tree to grow, without impacting nearby houses or buildings or utilities. Bell recommended looking overhead and side-to-side to make sure there's nothing that would hinder the tree's growth or that would be negatively impacted by the tree. Don't forget utilities that are underground, like septic tanks, she said. If the tree is near the house, think about whether leaves will land in gutters and if you're willing to do the cleaning.

Bell recommended planting native trees because they're already adapted to the climate. "Work with Mother Nature," she advised.

Examples are red, white and willow oaks, river birch, red maples, red buds, dogwoods, saucer magnolias, crape myrtles and crab apple trees. For a more complete list of trees native to Georgia, visit http://www.gfc.state.ga.us/education/nativetrees.cfm.

Dig a planting hole at least three times wider than the tree container and remove tags, ties, twine, burlap, string, and the top half of wire basket before planting the tree. If roots are bundled together in the container, loosen them up and spread them out before placing them in the ground.

The natural root flare of the tree should remain exposed after planting. Two to 3 inches of mulch can be piled around the tree, but don't pile it against the trunk, as it holds moisture and increases the chance for pests and disease, Bell said. Taper the mulch off at the root flare.

If staking is required, use two wooden stakes on either side of the tree with soft ties.

"You don't always have to stake a new tree," contrary to popular belief, Bell said. In fact, staking can weaken the tree's trunk. But if conditions are windy, or the tree is top-heavy, is bare-root or in danger of being knocked over, it should be staked.

Once a tree is planted, many yard owners start the endless quest to get grass to grow around the base. It's a losing battle, Bell said. Many trees have shallow root systems and they'll compete with the grass for nourishment and physical living space.

"If you have an established tree, it's probably going to win," she said.

After a tree is established, the maintenance phase begins. Many people overdo it with pruning, Bell said.

You often see crape myrtles, for example, pruned all the way to the trunk. Such aggressive pruning can have a negative impact on the health and longevity of the tree, Bell said, because the tree has to work extra hard to produce leaves in the spring. Excessive pruning also is unattractive, because the tree will produce numerous smaller branches in response to being clipped as a survival instinct, and grow knots at the base of the branches. It's fine to snip off the dead seed heads and prune branches that touch or rub together to eliminate the potential for breakage, she said.

Often, homeowners think they're removing the weight of branches hanging over their homes by heavily pruning oak and pecan trees, but in reality, it's only making matters worse, as the tree will grow a thicker set of branches in response to being lopped, Bell said. A good rule of thumb when it comes to pruning is less is best, she said.