What it takes
Trees…uh…don’t grow on trees. Growing trees is an art and a science. The trees you see for sale have years of fertilizing, pruning, watering and repotting behind them. Every aspect is carefully monitored. The soil mix needs to be formulated, pots need to be selected, water needs to be tested, the list goes on.
From a tiny acorn…
Trees start out small, as seeds or as cuttings. We buy seedlings or rooted cuttings, known as liners, from companies that specialize in them. Knowing when, where and how to take cutting or planting seeds, is a science unto itself. We also buy small trees from companies that grow seedlings and liners into a 3 or 5 gallon pot, saving us a year or more of effort. Buying quality, small trees that have straight trunks is a hugely important step. Without a good start, there is little hope for them to grow a proper straight trunk down the road or it adds extra work to get to that point. We are lucky to have several suppliers that do an excellent job of growing premium liners. When we place orders for liners or small trees, we know that these will not be the coming years crop. This years liners, will be at the farm for years.
When they arrive, the liners or small trees are watered and inspected, then sorted for shape if necessary. Some plants may make a better tree or a shrub, based on initial shape. A good example of this are Bottlebrush. The ones that have a single straight trunk become tree forms, the rest are left to grow as bushes. Sorting for shape saves a lot of effort down the road. Trying to force a bushy, multi trunk plant into a single trunk tree, rarely works and the results…can be butt ugly.
Liners and small trees are then potted into bigger pots. Some will go straight into 15 gallon pots, faster growers may skip that size. Most tree farms have their own soil blend, formulated for the specific type of water and native soil, they or their customers have. Custom blended soils may have fertilizer or other amendments added. Our supplier adds our amendments for us, at the time of mixing, making it ready to use. Making sure that the trees are planted at the right depth is a very important step. Too deep and the tree can’t breathe, too shallow and it won’t stand up on its own. Many of our smaller trees are staked with a bamboo pole and Miracle Tie (a stretchy, biodegradable and handy product). Staking them ensures a straight trunk.
The trees are moved from the potting area to their next home on a watering system. We use a drip system here and at the farm. Each station is run for a predetermined length of time, just like your irrigation system at home. Daily checks are made, to see that every spitter is working and that every tree is getting water. A trained eye can spot a problem quickly. The trees will usually stay in the same spot until they are ready for sale or it is time to “bump” them up to the next size pot. A 200 gallon tree may have been in 9 different pots during it’s life. A portion of every group will be held for “bumping” to make sure larger sizes are available in the coming years. This group may include trees that have slightly crooked trunks, gaps in the canopy or are just ugly…a situation it will hopefully out grow. Some trees never out grow a defect and are sold as #2 quality at a reduced price. These are the types of trees you get cheap, at cut-rate nurseries. Since we own the tree farm, we get first pick of the crop, which is great for you, our customers.
Along the way
The trees are fertilized, treated for insects and disease and pruned as needed. Monitoring for problems and knowing what problems to look for is an endless job and timing is everything. We must keep records for all the chemicals we spray or apply. Pruning trees is one of the most time-consuming things we do. Some trees need trimming once or twice a year. Others may need to be pruned monthly, based on how fast they are growing.
Does size matter?
We are often asked if we have trees smaller than 15 gallon. The answer is rarely “Yes”. The reason we don’t sell smaller trees, is the investment factor. When a home owner spends a nominal amount on a tree ($25 to $50), the concern for that investment is often (and unfortunately) minimal and neglect often occurs. Small trees are easily forgotten about and easily damaged beyond saving. In our experience, the more money that is spent on a tree, the more care they get. When we do have smaller trees, if they are not sold pretty quickly, we send them to our tree farm for bump up.
Sometimes in your hunt for the perfect tree, you might find a tree that seems like an incredible deal. It is huge, compared to other trees of the same species. Just because it’s bigger, doesn’t mean it’s a deal. Industry standards set the size range that corresponds with pot size. You can see the standards we go by here. https://rcwnurseries.com/data/stories_rcw/other/35_RCW_Tree_Standards.pdf When the specs on a tree are grossly over or under these standards, you could be buying a massive headache or not getting your money’s worth. Over sized trees can be a problem more often than undersized ones. Once a tree reaches the maximum for the standard, of the size pot it’s in, it’s time to either plant it or bump it to the next size. Root bound trees need special attention when being planted and they may never grow like they should.
Whether you start your tree from an acorn yourself or you buy one, remember that a good tree needs care and nurturing. Years of work go into the trees you see in nurseries and many more will be needed after they go into the ground. A gap in the canopy of a 12 foot tree will be gone in a few years (kinda like your kids front teeth). Let them be the characters that they are, every tree is different and no tree is ever “perfect”.