Buying smaller tree will pay off in the end

You are at the nursery buying a tree and see a beautiful giant tree in a 36-inch box, but the price is high. Next to this tree, is one in a 15-gallon container. Which one will you pick? I hope you pick the smaller one.

In this age of instant gratification, we want our landscapes to reach full size next week. To this end, we buy the largest trees, but is there really an advantage in selecting large trees over smaller ones? By small, I am referring to trees in 15 gallon or less containers. They save money, backaches hauling, heavy lifting and digging larger holes.

Small trees are energetic and grow fast after planting. Note the study by the University of Arizona that verifies small trees outgrow 24- or 36-inch boxed trees. The little trees were about five feet tall.

Seven years later, the differences were amazing. From those small ash, mesquite, acacia and desert willows grew trees with width and height of 20 to 30 feet and trunks a foot across. It also was necessary to prune some to control the size. In fact, the small trees surpassed the large ones in five years.

So is the higher cost of a larger tree really worth it?

Caliche problems become another advantage for selecting small trees. It really becomes grueling work digging out caliche for bigger trees.

However, if there is some soil over caliche, plant above it. Here’s how:

Remove the plant from the container and place at the desired location. Cover the root ball by mounding soil around it and gradually tapering soil away to blend with the natural grade. I call this “mounding.” When done right, the mound becomes unnoticed. Research finds most roots are in the top foot of soil, so those roots will anchor the plant into that topsoil. Place emitters over the mound to keep the tree moist and it will take off.

So next time you shop for trees, purchase the small fries. In a short time, the little trees will be what you expected.

Also, select trees with limbs originating on the lower two-thirds of the trunk. They increase trunk size for faster overall growth. Remove the lower limbs as the tree develops.

Select trees with lower trunks that are thicker than the upper trunk, which is a good indication of strength.

After planting, cover the area under the tree with organic mulch such as forest mulch, compost or pine straw. Spread mulch at least three inches deep over the soil surface, out beyond the tree’s dripline. Keep mulch away from the trunk. As the tree grows, expand the mulch blanket beyond the tree’s dripline. Remember, tree roots grow about three feet in length yearly.


Thanksgiving week is the perfect time to fertilize your lawn. I am not advocating this for trees and shrubs. Wait until spring to feed them.

We overlook late fall feeding, but it is the most important feeding of the year. Fall feeding becomes an investment, because you won’t have to feed it next spring.

Fall feeding increases root growth to store nutrients for next spring. These nutrients gradually increase growth next spring, so you will not have to mow often, which is the case if you spring feed.

Your turf stays greener during winter and thickens, making it harder for weeds to establish.

Timing is crucial. As temperatures cool, grasses stop growing and that is usually around Thanksgiving. As a side note, why does your gardener mow your lawn all winter? You can get by with monthly mowings.

Apply a fertilizer high in nitrogen and potassium. Purchase a slow-release fertilizer such as sulfur-coated urea that releases nutrients through the winter.

Potassium does some amazing things for turf: It improves cold tolerance, keeps grass greener, perks up the overall health of turf and encourages Bermuda lawns to green up earlier in spring. You’ll find potassium in all high-quality fertilizer.


Here are the winners of the Nevada Garden Clubs fall flower show: Horticulture excellence went to Linnea Domz; design excellence was won by Anna Williams. Domz and Williams shared the Designer’s Choice award. Awards of merit went to Barbara Rose for cut flowers; JoAnne Richard for roses; Jeri Lee for vegetables and nuts; Pete Duncombe for cactus and succulents; and Steve Hinkson for container grown plants. Other awards went to Judy Stebbins, petite; Steve Hinkson, appreciation; and Jean Engelmann for education and the arboreal award.

Linn Mills writes a gardening column each Sunday. You can reach him at or call him at 822-7754.

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