CRESTVIEW — Theresa Herndon picked the perfect time to move to her new home.

CRESTVIEW — Theresa Herndon picked the perfect time to move to her new home.

Her house stands on a large plot of land with minimal trees, and the area’s recent Arbor Day observance let her put her green thumb to work.

With her grandchildren, Iagan, 6, and Lexus Foss, 5, in tow, she consulted the Florida Forest Service’s senior forester, Maria Wilson, during Friday’s Arbor Day sapling giveaway at the University of Florida/IFAS County Extension office.

 “I bought a house on five acres of land with nothing on it but three long-leaf pines,” Herndon said. “We’re going to fill it up with these trees.”

Among the indigenous saplings were red maples, which Wilson advised Herndon to put in a one- or two-gallon pot of soil for a year to allow their root systems to develop before planting them.

By the three-hour tree giveaway’s end, Wilson said she and fellow foresters had provided several hundred saplings to nearly 100 residents and answered countless questions about planting and caring for trees as well.

Across the parking lot, extension horticulture agent Sheila Dunning got down and dirty — literally — as she and Okaloosa Master Gardeners’ volunteers planted two donated trees.

Herndon and her grandchildren joined the group of approximately 30 people who attended and gleaned planting tips.

As Dunning planted a winged elm donated by the Daughters of the American Revolution and a nuttall oak donated by the Dogwood Garden Club, she and county extension Director Larry Williams maintained a running commentary of tips and planting advice.

Season’s importance

The cool Northwest Florida winter is the perfect time to plant young trees, as they are dormant, and energy will be directed toward establishing foundation roots rather than branches, agents said.

“If you plant in March or April, the tree comes out of dormancy and directs energy to the crown, not establishing its roots,” Williams said.

“What happens in May? It’s like you threw a switch that turns off the rain and turns on the heat. Without a good root system, the tree becomes distressed trying to get moisture to the crown.”

Planting tips

“Planting depth and water management are keys to getting a tree to do well,” Dunning said, adding that a shallow hole is better than a deep hole.

Plant trees so the rootball’s top bit sticks out, she said.

“Fertilizer isn’t as important,” Williams said. “This tree (the elm) probably won’t be fertilized until next year.”

After three to five years, fertilizer is no longer needed because if the tree’s roots have been allowed to develop, they will extend far beyond the trunk area most people typically fertilize, he said.

Dunning recommended removing any covering wrapped around the rootball.

“It takes a lot of energy to push through that burlap,” she said.

Liberate roots that have wrapped around the ball, she said, to avoid training them in a “circling habit” that keeps the roots close to the trunk rather than spreading out to give the tree stability.

No weed killer

Finally, the experts advised never applying weed killer on grass within a tree’s root zone, the distance from the trunk equal to the tree branches’ spread. Such herbicides filter through the soil and attack a plant’s roots.

“Every year we get calls from someone who has killed his tree,” Williams said. “These products (weed killers) have no means of distinguishing a dandelion from the azaleas. You might as well say ‘bye-bye’ to the tree.”

“If you take the time to plant your tree right, the payoff is a tree that establishes itself,” Williams said. “It’ll do better and last longer.”

Contact News Bulletin Staff Writer Brian Hughes at 850-682-6524 or Follow him on Twitter @cnbBrian.