Training Trees

newly planted gold medallion tree (Cassia leptophylla)

newly planted gold medallion tree (Cassia leptophylla)

After careful observation of newly planted trees for almost 30 years, I have come to the conclusion that there is something seriously wrong with most of them.
They simply do not have the ability to stand up straight.
In this part of the world, when you go to the nursery to pick out a tree for planting, you typically select a specimen growing in a 15-gallon container. The tree has a single vertical trunk that is branchless for 6 feet, at which point it is topped by a small head of twigs. The tree has a stake, useful for nursery operations, securely strapped to its trunk.
This stake that comes with the tree should have a label attached that reads, “Remove before planting.” If this stake is not removed, the tree will rely on it for support, never build its own strength, and may eventually bend down or fall over when the stake is finally removed.
At most tree farms, there is a rush to get young, single-trunk trees, also known as “standards,” out the door. Every bit of lateral growth is rubbed or snipped off before it can get started, forcing growth upward so that a 6-foot-tall trunk can rapidly develop. As a result, you acquire a mop-headed tree with a skinny trunk that can barely hold itself up, would blow over in a Santa Ana wind or winter storm without support, and must be staked when planted.
Sometimes the tree never develops the ability to stand upright without a stake and must be dug up and discarded within a few years of planting; or it grows at such a precarious angle you are never comfortable in its vicinity, even when it has reached maturity.
By contrast, trees that, in their youth, grow wide as well as tall, by developing low-growing lateral branches, will allow you to sleep peacefully at night no matter how hard the wind blows.
Trees are not grown properly, it would seem, for reasons of convenience and economy. If trees were grown properly, with lateral branch development along the trunk, they would be much more difficult to move around the growing grounds as they developed.More labor would be required to properly train and prune them and costs would rise.
Still, having spent many years looking at hundreds of lopsided, improperly staked, and failed young trees, it would seem reasonable to spend more money for a tree that did not require staking than settle for a cheaper tree that required staking for years and, even then, may never stand up straight.
Until there is a revolution in tree growing, however, newly planted single-trunk trees must still be staked.
If you think you can get by with one stake, plant it upwind from the trunk (e.g., on the north side of a tree where the prevailing wind comes from the north). If two stakes are needed, locate them in a line that is perpendicular to the prevailing wind (e.g., on east and west sides of a tree where wind comes from the north).
In each case, stakes are placed so that the trunk will not rub against them when the wind blows.Ties should be made one-third of the way up the trunk, leaving some slack for the tree to develop wind resistance.Stakes should be located at the planting hole perimeter.
Still, where winds are intense, even the most perfect staking will not prevent a skinny young tree from developing a permanent lean as it grows.
One way to avoid staking trees, as well as to prevent leaning, is to select multi-trunk specimens. These are usually shorter, more rigorous trees than standards, with three or four roughly equivalent trunks angling out at ground level. Winds seldom break stakeless, multi-trunk trees.
The four most beautifully shaped crape myrtle trees I have ever seen are growing on the corner of Valley Spring Lane and St. Clair Avenue in Studio City.
Although they are single-trunked, they branch out only a foot or two above ground level. If more trees were trained like these, the breakage and early demise that is often their fate could be avoided.
Tomato troubles
Martin Ford, who lives in Palmdale, writes about his lack of success at growing tomatoes, despite trying to grow them “for the last five summers.”
Has anyone living in the Antelope Valley had success growing tomatoes and, if so, how did you do it?
Are there any tomato varieties that are especially well-suited to the high desert?
Tip of the week
A few weeks ago, I asked for advice on growing grapes in our area and I heard back from Maureen Blatt of Highland Park.
Maureen planted a `Thompson Seedless’ vine in a whiskey barrel one year ago in full, all-day sun. She was rewarded with a few tasty, albeit small, fruit last year and cut the plant back in the winter. Now she has new growth and lots of developing fruit, although it is also on the small size. (Home-grown fruits and vegetables are often smaller than those at supermarkets.) She uses trellises for support and fertilizes with Miracle-Gro once a month.
And reader Millie Derose wrote: “My parents were from Italy and my father loved making his own wine every year so he planted several types of grapes in the yard: Muscat, Thompson seedless, Concord, and Italian grapes.
“Right here in San Fernando every year the grapes would take over the trellis that he had built especially for them to climb, 20 feet high from the ground, over the driveway and onto the rooftop of the house. In January, he would cut the vines back very severely. He kept the base around them weed free so the dirt was the only thing surrounding the roots. He made sure they were watered frugally as he said they did not like a lot of water.”

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