Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Winged elm: A beautiful Florida native

The winged elm is so named because of its corky
The winged elm (Ulmus alata) is a graceful medium-sized tree native from Virginia to Texas and to north Central Florida. It grows well in a variety of conditions and should be more widely planted. Gil Nelson describes it as a fast grower in his "Florida's Best Native Landscape Plants." I have to agree with this assessment given my experience with this tree.

In 2010, I was on my first flowered shirt book tour of Florida after the publication of "Sustainable Gardening for Florida." I spoke to a number of the Florida Native Plant Society chapters as part of that tour. At one of those chapters, I was given a winged elm tree that had been auctioned off. The member who won the auction decided that I should have it. Even though the tree was not in good shape, I gracefully accepted his gift and brought it home.


We had another winged elm naturally planted at the edge of the wooded area out back. I thought it would be good to have another elm in the yard to keep it company.

This poor tree was in dire need of corrective pruning, but a newly planted tree needs all its leaves to produce the energy it needs to adjust to the shock of transplanting. So no pruning for a year.

THIS is why you rinse the roots
The elm was about 18 inches tall and was planted too deep in a 3-gallon container. I had learned about rinsing roots of container-grown trees in my research for my sustainable book. Rinsing the growing medium away from the roots:
- allows you to take corrective action for coiling roots so that the tree doesn't choke itself with its own expanding roots.
- reveals the root flare, so that you can plant the tree with its root flare 2 or 3 inches above the soil line. Trees that are planted too deeply don't do as well.
- helps the tree or shrub adjust more quickly to its new habitat.  If the rich growing medium with all its fertilizer balls, etc. is left intact, the roots are less likely to grow outward into the lousy, native soil.

When I slid the tree from the container, the root ball looked fine, but when I rinsed away the growing medium... Surprise! The roots were bright red and the plant had been held in a 1-gallon container for far too long so the roots were tightly coiled. 

I had chosen a spot to plant it that was about 20 feet from the front porch and about 10 feet out from several trees that were growing next to the pond. I dug a shallow hole and uncoiled the roots, spreading them out in all directions. One of the main roots cracked, I drove in a couple of stakes into the soil to keep the roots uncoiled. I flooded the planting hole and put only the soil that I'd dug out back in. No amendments. I made sure that the tree was not too deep and the spot where the roots grew from the trunk (the root flare) was above the soil line.

To create a watering basin, I built a 2-inch high berm on top of the soil at edge of the planting hole. I watered the tree every day with a whole 3-gallon watering can filled with rain barrel water for a few weeks and then tapered off to a few times a week. I did not trim the tree, although it was in dire need, which meant that this extra irrigation lasted a bit longer. (For more details on why not pruning trees at planting time is important, see my article, "Plants have hormones, too.")

About a month or so after planting, I laid a ring of finished compost just outside the planting hole. I did not dig it in: this was a topdressing. Then I laid some wood chip mulch on top of that to keep in the moisture and reduce the weeds. No mulch touched the trunk. A few months later, I laid another ring of compost around the tree, but a bit farther out than the first application.  The next spring I laid out a third compost ring even farther away from the tree.

The compost is absorbed into the soil and enriches the soil outside the plantig hole, which entices the roots to grow out of the planting hole area. When the roots grow outward, it makes the tree more drought tolerant and more wind tolerant, which are good attributes to have in Florida.

A year after planting, I trimmed it to encourage one trunk. At the time I left the suckers in place. You should not trim out more than 20% of a tree each year. The next year I cut away the suckers. The tree had really begun to grow by this time. As it grew, I cut away the lower branches a few at a time. I also kept the area around the tree weeded and mulched. 

This year, ten years after it was planted, it's more than 20 feet tall and is a beautiful addition to our front habitat landscape, which includes a good diversity of Florida native plants. 

In summer 2020: Here is the same tree. It's well over 20 feet tall.

The diversity of plants under this elm tree include:
I hope you've created habitat spaces in your yard with native plants chosen for their ability to attract birds and pollinators.  If you'd like more information on root rinsing, see Linda Chalker-Scott's website: www.informedgardener.com

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

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