Bigger is Not Better! 3 Reasons Why You Should Plant Trees When They are Smaller

Planting trees when they are saplings is easier, requires less maintenance, and the trees typically grow more quickly.

If you visit any nursery or garden center, you will typically find trees for sale in plastic pots or wrapped in burlap. Trees grown in containers are sold in plastic pots ranging from 5 gallons to 25 gallons – the larger they are, the longer they have been growing in a container. Trees wrapped in burlap, or "balled and burlapped" trees, have been raised in the ground at a tree farm. After they reach a specific size, the growers use a large spade to sheer away a majority of the root system and wrap the root ball in burlap and twine so they can more easily transport them.

Both types of trees are difficult to plant. They require significant care and attention to ensure they are properly planted. A poorly planted tree is more susceptible to pests and disease. These issues can sometimes take years to become apparent, and then it is often too late to fix the problem.

So what is the solution? Plant saplings!

Why balled and burlapped trees (B&B) are more difficult to plant:

B&B trees have the most significant hurdles to overcome. These trees are grown in a field. When the growers are ready to sell the trees, they use a tree spade to dig the them out of the ground.

This process shears away the majority of the root system, leaving only the 2 to 3 feet of roots immediately surrounding the trunk. These trees must work very hard for an extended period of time to overcome this loss. It can take anywhere from 3 to 10 years, depending on the tree's size.

What do we mean by "saplings"?

Ideally, these trees are 1-2 years old and have been grown in air-pruning beds or in-ground beds. This growing environment ensures that they have a healthy and intact root system, making planting easier.

What are the three main reasons you should plant small trees?

  1. Saplings are easy to plant. Because the root system is so young and dense, all you have to do is make a wedge in the ground using a small shovel or spade. There is no need to dig a large hole. Place the sapling in the hole with the roots facing down and loosely cover with dirt and a layer of wood chips. That's it!
  2. Saplings are easier to maintain. Larger trees need a lot of attention during the first few years after planting. They require 10 to 20 gallons per week per inch of trunk diameter during the growing season. That is a lot of water! Smaller trees only really need water if there is a prolonged period of drought, and, even then, it should just be a small amount.
  3. Saplings establish and grow more quickly. Younger trees have resilient root systems that can overcome the stress of being planted faster than larger trees can. This means they spend less time healing from damage and can put more energy into growing roots and shoots. In 5-10 years, a tree that is planted when it is younger will likely be taller and healthier than a larger tree planted at the same time.

Why container trees are more difficult to plant:

Containerized trees face a different issue with their roots, especially the larger containers such as 20- and 25-gallon sizes. The longer they are grown in a container, the less space there is for roots to grow correctly.

As a result, the roots often get tangled and sometimes even grow around the root collar. It is normal to remove 10% to 50% of the tree's roots before planting to correct these issues and provide the tree with the best hope for future success. As with the B&B trees, it takes time to overcome this loss. Most large container plants will take 2 to 5 years to establish. Smaller containers will often establish more quickly.

There are lots of other benefits to planting small trees. They cost less, they have a smaller carbon footprint, they have healthier root systems, and there are more available options, including native species.

It might be tempting to choose a larger tree so that you can see it dramatically change your landscape, but, over time, small trees usually outgrow larger trees. If you are patient, planting small can make a much more significant impact on your landscape, the health of your tree, and the health of our local ecosystem.

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