Fall Tree Care
Leave the leaves!
Fall brings cooler days and evenings, an extra layer when we head out, and the striking colors on display gifted to us by nature. For many of us fall also means raking leaves–but it shouldn’t. In fact, fall tree care should include leaving the leaves!
We have this habit as a society to rake and dispose of leaves, but leaves are vitamins for plants and magic for building the health and vitality of soil. Throughout the growing season trees are producing energy in the form of sugar, or, sap. This time of year, as we start to see the leaves changing color, that’s the indication that the sap is crawling from the leaves, into twigs and branches, down the trunk and into the roots for winter.
When leaves fall, much of the tree’s energy, in the form of sap, goes into the root system encouraging new root growth (FOT gets busy this time of year very deliberately: planting trees now gives the roots a head start and a chance to anchor themselves). The rest of the leaf energy falls from the tree and settles on the ground–these leaves are literally vitamins for the root system that is primarily about 12-18” below the soil surface.
When we remove leaves we are actually interrupting a process called nutrient cycling, which is when the leaves break down and feed the roots. Rain carries the nutrients downward and provides them to trees and other plants water-solubly. So, leave the leaves! At the base of trees, in your garden beds, anywhere you want healthy soil in the spring.
Mulching: it’s not just for spring
Think about it: the forest floor is perfectly mulched. The act of transplanting a tree is unnatural, what we do planting trees doesn’t happen in nature, they don’t jump around and move. So, as tree stewards, we are trying to make trees feel comfortable, to restore a natural setting–as much as possible, of course, in an urban area. Street trees have it tough in this regard: They are often in compacted soil that is depleted, and it’s depleted because, unlike in the forest, we often remove leaves and clippings, and soil gets very compacted in the built environment.
So in addition to leaving the leaves, refresh mulch as needed. Create a “sacred mulched zone” ideally 2-3 feet in each direction from the base of the tree; this should be and remain a grass-free zone, and it should be an area that won’t be disturbed. If the tree is in a small space, such as a street tree next to the sidewalk, maintain it in the form of a square if there’s grass to mow since it’s easier to mow along a straight line than around a ring of mulch.
Why mulch? 50% of healthy soil is air & water pockets. How do we get these pockets? Partly through roots, just the process of roots growing down. And when some of the roots die and decompose they leave space in their wake, where fungi and bacteria grow and bring life to soil. Those fungi and bacteria grow where the soil isn’t, which is why compacted soil can be a challenge to bring to life.
When trees are transplanted – the most stressful day of a tree’s life – we want to foster new growth to set the new tree on the path of health and vitality. Tree roots can grow year round as long as the temperature of the soil is moderate (think of mulch as a down jacket for the soil) and there is the presence of moisture, both of which are provided by mulch! One inch of mulch is a windbreaker, three inches is like a down jacket – and we want that year round, protecting against temperate extremes. Not only is mulch insulating, it’s also thirst-quenching since wood chips hold water.
Fall tree care should start with building the soil with organic matter through application of mulch, setting the tree up for success, which is ever more important in a changing climate. Do take some time to get your mulching and non-raking done, and then tune in next month when we share the next stage of your fall tree care (hint: it rhymes with strewn, but don’t start yet!).