Top 6 Tips for Good Tree Health

Missouri TreesSince we have the world’s best arborists descending upon St Louis this month, we thought we’d check in with some of the local talent to get some advice on keeping trees healthy in the St Louis area. Here are 5 tips given to us by members of the St Louis Arborists Association. Oh, and the 6th tip we added on our own, courtesy of the International Society of Arboriculture.

1. Don’t Top Trees!

Many people think they’re avoiding future potential damage to their homes by having trees especially soft-wooded trees like silver maples and Siberian elms – “topped”, or severely cropped. And, unfortunately, there are plenty of ill-trained tree cutters out there willing to do, and even promoting, this work. Topping stimulates growth of many, vigorous shoots that lead to branches with weak attachments and decay inside the topped stubs. Fast-growing branches will quickly regain the original height, but with even more hazardous branching than the original branches. Topping also results in an unnatural, freakish appearance to the tree, which would be better off removed entirely. A certified professional arborist can recommend alternative methods to topping to reduce potential tree hazards.

2. No Mulch Volcanoes

This is a practice that persists despite ongoing education efforts to eliminate it. You’ve seen them around: those mounds of hardwood mulch piled high against the trunks of landscape trees, sometimes rising to 1-2 ft.! Experts call them mulch volcanoes. They’re so pervasive in the landscape, many people probably think they represent sound tree care practice. They don’t! Mulch piled that high restricts moisture and oxygen from getting to the roots of plants, and promotes disease and insect penetration through the constantly wet bark tissue. It also provides attractive housing for voles that chew on plant roots and tree bark. Never apply mulch more than 3-4″ deep, and never pile it up against the bark of a tree. The oft-used analogy is to think of a donut, when applying your mulch.

3. Avoid Lawn Equipment and Construction Damage

Weed whackers and lawn mowers can cause seemingly insignificant wounds to tree bark, but even the tiniest wound can provide entry to an opportunistic insect or disease pathogen, especially if a tree is already stressed. And heavy construction equipment can damage trees without even touching them, by compacting all the pore space out of the root-zone soil, depriving trees of oxygen, moisture and nutrition. Mulch around trees to avoid lawn equipment damage, and protect the root zone as much as possible during construction.

4. Tree Planting Depth

Sometimes a tree just never has a chance. Poorly planted trees may thrive for a few years, maybe even 10-15 years, then suddenly and for no apparent reason, die. When dug up, it is often apparent that the trees were planted too deep to begin with. Thick roots that appear above the root flair, often circling around and girdling (choking) other roots, are indications of a tree planted too deep. Sometimes, soil can build up around the trunks of trees in the nursery, and may actually be too deep in the root ball or container. Before planting a new tree, do a little digging at the top of the root ball or container to expose the root flair (that portion of the trunk that begins to spread out). Trees should be planted so this root flair is at or slightly about ground level. When digging a hole, never dig deeper than the required depth, as loosened soil can settle, causing a newly planted tree to sink below the desired level.

5. Choose the Right Tree for the Right Spot

One of the most common reasons for premature tree death is simply the result of the wrong tree in the wrong spot. Sun-loving trees in shady conditions and understory shade trees in sunny conditions will always be stressed with potential for disease and early death. The same is true for drought tolerant or moisture-loving trees grown in soils that don’t offer those conditions. Trees that grow too big for their site, either against a building or through power lines, and thus require ongoing pruning, will always be more likely candidates for insect and disease infestation and early death. Always do a little research to discover a tree’s ideal growing conditions, and match trees to the conditions in your landscape to give them the best chance for a long, healthy life.

6. Hire a Certified Arborist for Professional Tree Care

If you’re unsure about any of the suggestions above, or need any other professional tree care service, get advice from a certified professional arborist. An arborist is a professional in the care of trees. A qualified arborist can give you sound advice and can provide the services your trees may need. Good arborists will perform only accepted practices. When choosing an arborist, look for ISA Certification and Credentials, membership in professional associations, and ask for proof of insurance. Be weary of individuals who go door-to-door offering bargains for doing tree work. Don’t be afraid to check references.

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Peppers are HOT (or NOT)!

By Mara Higdon

Sweet Bell Pepper

Sweet Bell Pepper

Native to the Americas, peppers are a common vegetable used in cooking. High in vitamin C, peppers are available fresh or dried from scorching hot to your basic sweet bell. With Missouri’s hot summer weather, they are relatively easy to grow and come in a rainbow of colors. Try a few varieties, prep your soil and be prepared to test your taste buds.

Start off with healthy transplants that are 6-8 weeks old. Make the transplant holes 3-4 inches deep and about 1½ feet apart in the row. Space the rows at least 2-3 feet apart. Before planting, fill the holes with water and let it soak in. Move the plants carefully and set them in the transplant holes. Leave as much soil as possible around the roots. Fill the hole with soil and pack it loosely around the plant. Do not cover the roots deeper than the original soil ball and leave a slightly sunken area around each plant to hold water. Water the plants after planting.

Be careful when weeding around peppers as they do have shallow roots systems. Consistent watering ensures that your pepper plants have adequate moisture to fend off the heat of summer. Try not to let your pepper plants wilt repeatedly as this is extremely stressful to the plants! It is better to slowly soak the area when watering or you may displace the soil around the roots with a strong blast from the hose.

If you pick your peppers as they mature, your yields will be greater. The first peppers should be ready 8-10 weeks after transplanting. Pick bell peppers when they get shiny, dark green and firm. Harvest hot peppers when they turn red or yellow, depending on the variety. Jalapenos are mature when they reach good size and become a deep, dark green. If you leave green peppers on the plant, most peppers will turn red and are still good to eat.

When handling hot peppers in the kitchen, be careful to wash your hands with soap and water before touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. If you have an abundance of peppers and get tired of them just chop them up (blanch if you like) and store in the freezer for later use! You’ll save money and time when you’re making up that first batch of fall chili.

Mara Higdon is the Program Director at Gateway Greening. They focus on community development throughout the St Louis area.

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Organic Gardening Defined

By Barbara Perry Lawton

Organic GardeningA big garden trend in recent years is organic gardening. Yet the term organic gardening covers a wide range of practices. The most restrictive definition comes from the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which implemented a National Organic Program in 2002.

The aim of the program is to provide consumer assurance as it supports organic farmers and processors. The steps required to become a certified organic operation include following national organic standards, keeping records of practices and materials used, and having an annual inspection. A three-year transition period is required unless records prove that no prohibited substances were used in or near the production area during the previous three years.

Organic Gardening

Although they could not fulfill the USDA requirements for organic gardening certification, many gardeners are conscientiously trying to garden in what they consider safe and healthful ways. They won’t use any potentially harmful products – chemicals, preservatives, etc. – in their gardening practices. Common sense and environmental concerns are at the heart of their philosophy. They compost and use green manuring techniques. They work at improving soil texture and composition through organic soil amendments, including grass clippings, animal manures, leaves and so forth.

Natural Gardening

Natural gardening is a looser definition that is also called organic gardening by some. These gardeners have a similar basic philosophy to those in the above group but they aren’t as strict in their choices of soil amendments. They will use natural products that are basically organic even if they contain a minimum of preservatives, dyes, etc. Natural soil amendments include such materials as blood meal, bone meal, fish emulsion, kelp spray, and cottonseed meal.

Permaculture and Sustainable Gardening

These terms refer to those growers and gardeners who practice a form of organic gardening that calls for only using materials from their own farms or gardens to recycle by composting and using to improve the soil. They make compost, fertilizers and soil amendments themselves. They will not buy or get organic materials from outside or commercial sources.

Where Does That Leave Most of Us?

Most of us with strong interests in organic gardening practice a combination of things and seem to be heading more toward more strictly organic methods each year. We have learned that healthy soil produces healthy plants. We are learning to substitute compost and low-till practices for deep digging and chemical additives.

We no longer use pesticides, except in extreme cases, preferring to treat harmful insect problems with low impact solution such as sprays of cold water and hand picking. Most of us find that hand weeding and mulching now substitute successfully for herbicides. We are learning that healthy soil life – earth worms and all the many other kinds of soil life – will go far in helping produce vigorous plant life. At the same time, we are learning that excessive soil disruption and chemical fertilizers do not support and encourage healthy soil life – instead, they will destroy it.


The pluses: Organic gardening practices are less expensive and more lasting than those based upon commercial inorganic products. Gardening is good exercise and there is an exuberant satisfaction in both gardening itself and in seeing the beautiful and tasty results of gardening.

The disadvantages: At the same time, organic gardening takes more time and skill than industrialized gardening practices. Further, dedicated organic gardeners will not use genetically modified seeds that are able to resist pests, a major advantage for both farmers and gardeners.

The final disadvantage to organic gardening is that the majority of consumers do not truly understand the ramifications of organic gardening methods. They often think of organic products as more expensive. Most consumers say they would use more organic products and methods if they knew that they could get effective results for little or no additional cost.

Obviously, there is a need for better education, so take the time to explain to gardening friends why and how you use organic methods.

Barbara Perry Lawton is a writer, author, speaker and photographer. She has served as manager of publications for Missouri Botanical Garden and as weekly garden columnist for the St Louis Post-Dispatch. The author of a number of gardening and natural history books, and contributor to many periodicals, she has earned regional and national honors for her writing and photography. Barbara is also a Master Gardener and volunteers at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St Louis MO.

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