If you are planting trees you need to protect them for the first three to nine years against wind, drought, weeds, etc. When most people plant a tree, they think it can fend for itself. It is a tree, after all, and they grow in the wild!
But this is just not the case.
Foresting Non-forest Environments
First of all, most of the places we plant are not natural environments. We often forest pasture or urban areas that don’t have the protective canopy of mature trees or the well-developed soil and leaf litter of a woodland ecosystem.
We can mimic these conditions with shelter plantings of pioneer trees for more shade-lobing species. And copious mulch creates something like soil leaf litter to protect smaller plant roots.
Also, many of the trees planted are fruit, often grafted and in need of extra care. They have weaker inter-stems and need support in the early establishment years.
You Need a Tree Guard
When it comes to protecting your trees, the biggest mistake you can make is not using a form of protection. Young and with soft bark easily fall prey of rodents (mice, voles) as well as rabbits and even deer.
A tree guard or shelter will keep these creatures from hewing through the tender bark and supping on the nutrient-rich cambium layer just below the bark’s surface.
Two Types of Protection
The two main types of tree protection are tree guards and tree shelters, and they come in many variations.
One popular tree guard is the spiral tree guard, made out of a rigid plastic that can twist over the stem of a tree and wrap around up to 12 to 36 inches.
The height depends on the size of the tree and also the snow in winter. A mouse will girdle a tree at 24 inches above ground during a winter with deep snow!
Tree protection also can be used to protect the buds and tender young shoots from browsing creatures such as deer. A deer will come around every winter and bite off the years’ growth in one fell swoop. I have seen a 10-year-old tree that still looks like day one because it was eaten back every year.
In this case a tree needs a taller form of protection to go right over the top of the tree. This design provides the further benefit of also protecting against wind and cold.
These types are often referred to as tree shelters. One popular type of tree shelter is the Plantra tree shelter. This style is mounted to a bamboo stake with ties, wrapping around the entire tree stem, branchlets and all.
Plantras leave a space between the shelter walls and the tree itself for sufficient room to grow.
No matter the type, you should follow some important tips for installation to make sure they work right. All tree guards should be pushed into the soil 1 to 2 inches to make sure rodents can’t easily push under them. The guards should also go as tall as protection is needed.
For deer protection this could be as much as 6 feet around a fruit tree whip (tall, pruned fruit tree for orchard establishment). For rodent protection on smaller trees, choose guards that go up 2/3 the height of the tree. You can add more guards later to protect the trees as it grows.
Some guards, like the tree shelters, need support. You can use bamboo or wooden stakes or even rebar to help hold these shelters up. Your support could also double as tree support, too, for fruit trees that require it.
Plum trees are particularly susceptible to needing extra support for their wide, weaker root system.
Removing Tree Guards
Removing tree guards at the right time is as important as selection and use. Some tree guards can expand and shift as the tree grows, eventually becoming obsolete as the tree expands so much that the guard is no longer fully protecting the bark.
At this stage the tree is usually safe from rodent damage. But be warned: I have seen an 8-inch diameter trunk girdled!
However, it is important to note that with some very fast-growing trees (especially if they are being fed with fertilizers like compost), they can outgrow the tree guard and actually strangle themselves on their own guard! Generally speaking, once the tree has grown up above the shelter by more than 24 inches, you can remove it. The deer cannot reach up to eat the growth tip.
They may browse lateral branches, but they won’t stunt the tree by nipping off the top.
Budgeting the Cost
So, what is the cost? For any tree you care about surviving and growing rapidly, consider this budget for success:
- Native Tree: $10 to $35 for a 3- to 5-foot whip
- Fruit Tree: $50 to $100 for a 3- to 5-foot hip
- Spiral Tree Guard: ~$2 per guard for 36 inches
- Tree Shelter: ~$3 for 36 inches
- Wooden Stake, or T-bar or rebar: ~$4 to $10 for 7 feet
- Compost: couple shovel-full scoops for $10
- Weed Mat or Cardboard: $0 to $2 per square foot
- Mulch: Chip mulch or straw mulch for $0 to $1 per square foot
- Ties: Scrap drip tape works great, or other ties for $0
So here is your recipe for success. Don’t forget your tree guard!