How to Avoid Nursery Stock Losses

The following information on how to avoid nursery stock losses comes from Five Acres and Independence by M. G. Kains. Five Acres and Independence is also available to purchase in print.

Recent investigation and experiment indicate that at least 90% of the disappointment and expense caused by improper management of nursery stock can be prevented in proportion as people learn what to avoid, what to choose when purchasing; how to plant and how to take care of nursery stock, especially while young. The essentials are so simple and so easily applied that anybody can manage them, whether or not he has ever planted a tree before. Better still, the most important items cost nothing, except a few minutes to do them. Having spent good money for trees and shrubs it is as foolish to neglect these essentials as to run an automobile without oil!

Most beginners assume that trees as received from the nursery are “full of wim, wigor and witality” and therefore “rarin’ to go,” or rather grow. Perhaps they were before being dug; but in spite of the most careful digging 50% to 75% or even more of the feeding rootlets are inevitably cut off and only part of the conduit roots are left.

Experiments with countless trees and bushes and many species have supported the business tree planters’ contention that these remnants of conduit roots cannot do feeding-root duty and supply the trunks with the water necessary to develop leaves and new branches. Though the roots strive nobly to meet this demand, the branches attempt to carry on as if nothing had happened. The result is that, unless the top is reduced, the tree always suffers and probably dies.

To prevent this calamity it has been proved that a balance must be struck between top and root. (Chapter 32.)

Experiment and experience have also proved that freshly dug nursery stock properly handled and planted recovers more quickly and grows better than otherwise equally good stock that has been kept in storage. Whenever possible, therefore, freshly dug stock should be given preference. Except with autumn planting, modern nursery methods and popular demand almost preclude this practice with fruit trees and shrubs. The great bulk of such stock sold in spring is dug during the previous autumn and stored from three to six months before the buyer plants it! The exigencies of the nursery business have compelled the development of these storage methods. In spite of the best care the nurseries can give, a tree in storage not only loses vitality but the later it is planted the poorer the chance it has, especially in the hands of inexperienced planters, of overcoming the daily more adverse conditions of air and soil as spring approaches summer.

Still another handicap all nursery stock has to meet is the drying of the roots, branches and trunks (in the order named) when dug and exposed to sun and wind, when packed loosely, when shipped long distances, when unpacked and again left exposed to sun and wind, when planted in loose, dry soil and when left with unpruned tops as already explained.

Experiment and experience agree that fruit trees and shrubs of ordinary nursery sizes may be shipped safely without soil around their roots but with damp packing materials of various kinds. If it has been stored or has been long in transit it will be benefited by being plunged, root and branch if possible, in a pond, a stream, a barrel or a deep tub brim-full of water and so kept for a day or longer before being planted. It will thus “plump up” and have a far better chance of growing than if planted at once, or just as it arrives. Burying in sopping wet soil for three days to a week will give equally good results. I have saved almost brittle-dry stock in this way.

Analyses of countless cases have proved that attempts “to get fruit soon” are responsible for more failures and disappointments in amateur planting than is perhaps any other one thing. The fact that professional tree movers succeed in transplanting mature trees, perhaps in full leaf, tempts many inexperienced people to buy large stock. They do not realize that the tree movers’ trees are specially handled by experts to insure success. Many of them are prepared for the ordeal of transplanting by perhaps years of tedious and costly root pruning, or previous transplantings; others are dug with exceeding care to save the largest possible amount of roots which are kept moist by wrappings of wet burlap. Finally, care is given at frequent intervals for at least a year, especially as to watering.

All this is very different from planting the ordinary “bearing age” trees which some nurseries offer for sale at advanced prices. Unless these are prepared as just explained the losses of roots in such cases are so great that the trees rarely recover, much less continue to develop into beautiful, fruitful specimens. Generally, therefore, smaller, less costly trees become established promptly and not only catch up with, but outstrip larger ones of the same kinds.

Modern machine methods of digging ordinary sizes of nursery trees are far quicker than old fashioned spade digging but they split, break, tear and scrape the conduit roots as well as cut off the feeding rootlets. The larger and older the trees, the greater the loss. Though English experiments seem to prove that roots so injured recover without doing damage to the trees through decay or permitting disease to enter, American tree planters agree that it is safer to cut off these injured parts so as to concentrate the healing energy and thus hasten both the recovery of the trees and the establishment of new feeding roots.

Commercial tree planters differ as to methods of planting, yet recent experiments have proved that the old fashioned plan of spreading the roots out in all directions is better than crowding them in a bunch as many commercial orchard planters do. For when they are spread out there is little or no danger of any root strangling another and thus impairing its usefulness, if not starving the tree!

Trees by the thousand are killed annually by placing manure or fertilizer in the holes dug for them. These materials come in contact with the roots of newly planted trees and when wet make such strong solutions that they literally burn the forming rootlets until the tree gives up attempting to develop them. The only safe way to apply these materials is to mix them with the surface layer of soil after tree planting so the solutions may become diluted before they reach the tender rootlets. When digging the holes throw the good top soil in one pile and the lower or poorer subsoil in another. It is safe and sane to place the best available soil in close contact with the roots and the poorer soil on the surface. The former encourages development of new roots; the latter discourages weed growth.

A study of hundreds of failures to make good stock grow shows that the stock was planted loosely. Practical tree planters always require that the earth be packed firmly around the roots as the plants are being set. Unless this is done too much air is left in the soil, moisture evaporates rapidly, new roots fail to develop, the old ones dry out and the tree dies. It is important to maintain 1″ to 2″ of loose soil above the hard packed earth in which the roots are embedded as this tends to check evaporation of water from the lower soil and to discourage weed growth.

After each tree is planted it is imperative to remove the label which the nursery has generally wired tightly to the trunk. If desired it may be attached to a branch by a loop of as large a diameter as the wire will permit. If the wire is left wound around the trunk or a branch it will girdle or “strangle” the stem at that point. The part above the constriction may blossom the following year but die soon after.

When the above essentials and precautions are practiced even the beginner should succeed as well as the professional in making trees grow—practically 100%. Then by the application of some other principles he may build so strongly that until they approach senility they will carry heavy loads of fruit, ice or snow and stand the stress of high winds without breaking.

It is always advisable to buy high grade trees, not necessarily the largest but well grown ones. First choice should be those whose principal branches, if any, are far apart (12″ or preferably more in the case of apple, sweet cherry and pear) and pointing in several directions. The inferior and poorly placed ones should be cut off. The strongest, best placed ones make most symmetrical trees. Among nursery trees as ordinarily grown such trees are rare because of the intensive methods of growing and because many nurserymen still cut the “leaders,” or main trunks of their yearling trees, thus favoring cultivation between the nursery rows, but forcing the development of branches in bunches just below the cuts. Rather than buy such trees it is better to choose young, straight, unbranched trees of these species. With these unbranched “whips” it is easy to develop structurally strong trees as already explained. (Chapter 32.)

When such trees are bought in the fall they are usually chosen in the nursery row and dug individually by hand. They are therefore probably better specimens and in better condition than those dug by machine, stored over winter and hastily grabbed from a pile during the nursery’s busy season. When planted in the fall they are likely to start growth long before spring planted trees; if planted in spring the work should be done as soon as possible after the frost is out of the ground so as to give the trees the best and earliest possible start. In those two cases no part of the “leader” should be cut off.

The symmetry and strength of such trees may still further be developed by treating each of the frame limbs as if it were a trunk—allowing only a few secondary, distantly spaced branches to develop on each until after the second or third year. The upward extension of the trunk may be treated as during the first year—nipping off all except three to five frame branches each year, preferably the smaller number. In due time as the tree will reach its “desired” height it will reduce its upward development and fill out. The strength and beauty of such specimens are well worth the small effort to secure them.

Sometimes a tree is received from a nursery with a Y-like construction of trunk and two evenly developed branches. (Fig. 41.) Unless such cases are treated one or both of these branches will break down sooner or later. Yet the case is easy to treat in several ways. Perhaps the best is to cut off all but 4″ to 6″ of whichever branch seems to be the inferior and a year or so later to remove the stub close to the trunk. If cut back altogether the first year the wound will be proportionately larger so drying of the trunk at this point might be so great that the tree might die.

Y-crotch in young tree

Fig. 41. Best way to treat Y-crotch in young tree. (From photo.)

Another way is to shorten the inferior branch 50% to 75%. It will thus develop as a branch upon the superior one which will become the main trunk.

In cases where both arms of the Y have been allowed to grow for several years the symmetry and the well being of the tree would be injured if one were then cut off. Yet the inevitable breakdown may be prevented in either of two easy ways. One is by braiding and tying two branches together, one from each arm of the Y extending toward the other. In a few years these two will become united to form a brace of living wood between the two arms. After the union (not before) the twigs beyond the brace should be cut off a little at a time each year until only the brace remains.

The other method applicable after the Y-arms have become large is to bore a 3/4″ hole in each arm at least 6″ above the crotch, insert eye bolts, place large washers and nuts on the ends, join the eyes with a stout cable or a chain and draw up the bolts tightly. This work is best done while the trees are leafless as the arms are then closer together than when loaded with fruit or even with leaves.

Though the methods of management outlined will enable anyone to train young trees in the way they should grow, cases sometimes arise where neglect or accident almost compel the owner of established trees to do more or less pruning and simple tree surgery. For such people the following supplemental suggestions should be found helpful.

It is important to avoid attaching to trees anything that may restrict growth. A clothes-line or wire wound around a growing branch or trunk may be almost buried by new growth in a single year. The next year it will begin to strangle the part and the third or fourth kill the upper parts.

Fence wires and the ends of fence rails nailed to trees have often been buried by rapidly growing wood. Benches placed so firmly between trees that there is no “give” often have their ends “swallowed” by the trunks.

When necessary to attach wires to trees the best way is to use bolts as already detailed.

Repeated investigation and experiment have proved that the time of year has far less to do with the healing process than has the position of the cuts—the closer and the more nearly parallel to the sap flow the quicker the healing. To date no investigator or experimenter has questioned the old dictum: The proper time to prune is when the tools are sharp!

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How to Avoid Nursery Stock Losses

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