Martha's Guide to Planting and Growing Strong, Healthy Trees

Martha is passionate about trees, for both their beauty and the vital role they play in the environment. Over the past eight years, she's added dozens of breathtaking varieties to her Bedford farm. Learn her method for planting them—and planning for a bright future.

fall foliage
Photo: Ngoc Minh Ngo

In another life, I would just grow trees. I love their incredible variety. They can be tall and majestic, weeping or cone-shaped; have trunks with smooth or exfoliating barks; and produce blossoms that smell like perfume or delicious fruit or nuts. Some sprout up quickly, while others take what seems like forever to develop into proud centenarians.

I wish I had the space in this column to share with you all the different seedlings I have ordered over the past eight years. It has become a near-obsession of mine to see how many babies I can grow into strong saplings, and then plant in the woods and along the roads and paths to create allées on the farm. Trees are unquestionably important to our environment, providing oxygen, cleaning drinking water, helping combat climate change, and providing habitats for wildlife, among so many other benefits. Every year, I add as many as I can. Some are native species like maples, oaks, and pines. Others have been a bit more exotic, including beeches, lindens, katsuras, ginkgos, and Camperdown elms.

how to grow trees bedford
Ngoc Minh Ngo

Each spring, I have such fun looking through tree-nursery catalogs, like those from Musser Forests, in Pennsylvania, and the wholesale nursery JLPN, in Oregon. I read all their fabulous descriptions before making my decisions. Since my farm is in Zone 5, I seek out varieties that will be hardy here, and then decide where to put them based on how large they'll get, how much light they require, and whether they like moist or dry soil. I then grow the babies in pots for at least 12 months, and later put them in the ground, around this time of the year or in the spring.

Most of the seedlings I am adding won't reach their mature size in my lifetime, but I love to envision what they will look like decades from now. After all, I'm not planting only for myself—my motto is pour l'avenir ("for the future"). I'm doing this for my grandchildren and whoever wanders through my woodland to enjoy, as well as for our planet. I hope I have inspired you to plant a tree of your own (learn how to do so below). You'll be rewarded for many years to come.

color changing leaves on tree
Ngoc Minh Ngo

Find a location.

Check the requirements for your variety. Does it need light, or prefer shade? Will it require a moist or dry area? Then before breaking out your shovel, call 811 to make sure you won't hit any power lines in your chosen spot.

Give it room to grow.

With a sharp shovel, dig a hole about twice as wide and deep as the size of the pot, and loosen the surrounding soil. Clear any large rocks; add water to the bottom.

Remove the sapling.

Loosen the edges of the container, and gently slide the tree out. Break apart the roots with your hands, or slice an X through the root ball with a knife.

Pro tip: Martha orders baby bare-root saplings in bulk, because they're much less expensive than mature specimens. After rehydrating their roots in water for several hours, she plants each one in a pot, using a mixture of compost and potting soil, and leaves them there for a year to 18 months, so their root systems have time to develop before she moves them into the ground.

tree saplings
Johnny Miller

Put it in position.

Follow the guideline "bare to the flare." The root flare, or collar (the place where the roots start to spread out from the trunk), should be flush with the soil line. Add a mixture of compost and soil to reach that height. Then place the tree in the hole, making sure it's straight, and backfill. Lightly tamp down the soil to remove air pockets.

Mulch and hydrate.

Give your newly planted tree a long drink of water. Then top with a couple of inches of mulch, leaving several inches of the space right around the trunk bare (to prevent rot). For the first few months, leave a hose running directly on the spot for about 10 minutes once a week.

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