Can I grow a Century Tree seedling where I live?

Image courtesy the United States Department of Agriculture

Image courtesy the United States Department of Agriculture

The growing region for live oaks -- the species of the Texas A&M Century Tree -- is from USDA Hardiness Zone 8 (light orange) to Zone 10 (pink).

These areas, which are roughly 400 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, have the perfect weather conditions to support this variety of tree. Winter temperatures north of Zone 8 are typically too cold for live oak trees, and they usually will not survive those harsh winter weather conditions.

While we will ship Century Tree seedlings to areas in Zone 7, we cannot guarantee their survival in this particular zone, or any zones further north.

Taking Care of Your Seedling Until Planting Time

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Step 1: Pet precautions

If your seedling shares an environment with pets -- especially dogs -- make sure to take steps to keep it out of their reach. Dogs have been known to use seedlings as chew toys, as well as using them to "mark their territory". Both of these can cause great damage to your seedling.

Step 2: Water your seedling once a week until planting time

Unbox your seedling, preferably outside, and immediately water it. Fill it to the rim and let the water drain through the bottom of the potting container. (It's always best to water your tree outside or where the water draining through the container won’t be a problem.) The potting soil will retain about 50% of the water and the rest will drain out of the bottom.

It is critical that you water your seedling once a week until you are ready to plant it. Your seedling will start to droop and wilt if it needs water.

Rainfall is great for your tree, but you should maintain your once-weekly watering schedule even it rains. Most rain showers won’t provide as much water to your tree as a routine watering will.

Step 3: Provide your seedling with plenty of sunshine

Place your potted seedling outdoors in full sunshine. The more sunshine – the faster it will grow.

About your seedling's shipping package

Each element of your potted seedling has a purpose. On top of the potting soil, there is a 3/8” felt disc (called a "Rootcap") which is made specifically to fit the Rootmaker one-gallon potting container. 

The Rootcap allows water to penetrate into the potting soil below – and allows for faster watering of your seedling without eroding the soil. The Rootcap also prevents soil moisture from evaporating as quickly. 

The Rootcap is held in place with twine which has been laced back and forth across the top level of drain holes in the Rootmaker container. The twine holds the potting soil and the root ball in place during the shipping process in case the cardboard box tips over. I advise you to keep the Rootcap and the twine in place until planting time.

The 24-inch tree stake serves to hold the Rootmaker potting container securely to the bottom of the shipping box. The stake also protects the seedling stem during shipping, and should be removed when unboxing the tree. 

About Live Oaks

  • Live oaks are one of many different oak tree varieties. They are native to the Gulf Coast region and grow in the warmer regions of the nation – about 300-400 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico and along both the east and west coasts in more temperate regions (Hardiness Zones 8, 9, and 10).
     
  • Live oaks retain green leaves throughout the year. Especially in the spring, live oaks will start shedding last year’s dark green leaves (which turn brown before dropping) while adding bright new green leaves at the same time. Don’t be alarmed when your young tree starts “molting” its older leaves in the spring – and throughout the year. This is perfectly normal for live oaks.
     
  • By its fourth year or so, live oaks will start to produce a small crop of acorns every fall. As your tree grows older and larger, more and more acorns will be produced each year. Over time, live oaks will produce a larger canopy of branches which will produce a lot of shade – to the point that grass and other ground covers will have difficult growing under its branches.

Planting Your Seedling

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When to Plant

The best time to plant your seedling is in October or early November. By then, the hot summer days are over but the colder days of winter haven’t yet arrived. This will allow your seedling to establish its root system in the ground without being stressed.

The second best time to plant is from April to May. If you choose to plant in the spring, wait until after the last freeze and the ground has started to warm up. Once you plant, you can continue your once-a-week watering process throughout the year.

However, you should remember to bring your potted seedling indoors in case of freezing weather. The root ball is much more vulnerable to freeze damage while still in the potting container. Once the tree has been planted into the ground, the soil keeps the root ball insulated from freezing temperatures.

Planting Location

By far, the most important decision you make is where your tree will be planted. Just a few things to consider when picking a location:

  • Is it close to other trees? Sometimes landscapers plant young trees too close together, which causes their branches to grow into each other as they mature, and can potentially cause other problems. 
     
  • Are there any fixed objects nearby? Take into consideration how close your tree will be to buildings, concrete sidewalks and driveways, and other fixed objects like overhead power lines.  You'll want to give it plenty of room to grow in the years ahead and avoid future problems.
     
  • Does the ground drain well? Consider the grade (slope) of the ground where you intend to plant. Make sure the ground drains AWAY from the planted tree. Above all, do NOT plant your seedling in a low-lying depression, which becomes a puddle during heavy rains. This will lead to root rot – especially in clay-based soils. It's far better to plant on a mound or slightly-raised incline than in a low spot.
     
  • Where are your sprinklers? Locate and take into consideration underground sprinklers and piping. Try NOT to plant your tree immediately on top of an underground sprinkler pipe or around a sprinkler head. Tree roots and underground PVC piping don’t always play well together.

    Know in advance that as your tree grows larger, it will create more shade (which discourages grass growth) as well as compete with a grassy yard for surface moisture – often leading to bare ground areas under the tree. 

    Choose your planting location wisely – and give your tree plenty of room to grow. Remember how large the Century Tree by the Academic Plaza is, and plan accordingly.

Preparing to Plant Your Tree

After you select your planting location, gather the following tools and materials for planting and have them ready to go before you start the process:

  1. Sharpshooter drain spade or round-point shovel
  2. Bag of hardwood mulch (only need ½ bag)
  3. If you choose to use a tree stake, you will need a taller bamboo or plastic tree stake (recommend 72” tall) 
  4. A modest supply of 4-to-6 inch long wire twists for securing your tree to the stake, if you choose to use one.
  5. A garden hose attached to a faucet.
  6. A pair of scissors to cut the laced twine inside the potting container.

Planting

At your chosen planting location, dig the planting hole twice as deep and twice as wide as the potting container. (For the one-gallon container, the hole should be roughly 16 inches wide and 16 inches deep.) As the soil is dug up out of the ground, place it to one side of the hole.

If possible – especially in clay-based soils – use the shovel or sharpshooter to cut slices into the soil wall and along the bottom of the hole. This will help the tree roots to gain a foothold and penetrate the walls and bottom of the hole.

Crumble the removed soil from the hole and mix it with an equal part of bagged garden soil to help keep the dirt moist around your seedling's roots. Then, backfill the hole with about 12 inches of soil mixture, leaving the hole only about four inches deep. (Again, you are making it easier for the roots to become established.)

Using scissors, cut the laced twine above your seedling's felt Rootcap and remove the cut pieces of twine. Next, remove the felt Rootcap, exposing the potting soil. Trash the pieces of twine and the Rootcap. 

Next comes the moment of truth – and the most delicate part of the planting process. Make sure that you are not rushed to complete this step.

Place your open hand across the top of the potting container with the stem protruding between your third and fourth fingers. Turn the pot upside down and tap the bottom of the potting container with your other hand. (The idea is to dislodge the root ball from the bottom of the container.) Catch the root ball with your open hand as it slides from the container, and set the container to one side so you can use both hands.

Above all, keep the root ball intact and handle it with extreme care. The root system is very sensitive to changes – so please be gentle. Delicately place the root ball into the hole.

Take note where the top of the root ball is located relative to the ground level outside the hole. The top of the root ball should be slightly higher than the ground level. If necessary, gently remove the root ball with both hands and backfill the hole with more crumbled soil to raise the level of the root ball. Replace the root ball back into the hole, and repeat until you are pleased with the placement of the root ball – making sure that it is slightly higher than the ground level outside the hole.

Gently backfill the rest of the soil mixture into the hole around the root ball and press it firmly into place. Use the top of the shovel handle to gently poke the dirt down around the outer edge of the root ball – but NOT directly on top of the root ball, as it will shatter the root ball and cause root damage.

Make sure that the tree stem is in a vertical position, and adjust the position of the root ball as needed to attain this position.

Turn on your faucet slightly, allowing a small flow of water to emerge from the garden hose. Hold the hose over the planted root ball and completely saturate the soil around the root ball – it will help pack the loose soil into place. When finished, turn off the faucet. The planting hole should be muddy and waterlogged.

Complete the planting process by applying a two-inch layer of hardwood mulch in a 16-inch diameter circle around the base of the planted tree stem. This should basically cover the area of the planting hole. (Only half of a bag of mulch will be needed for now, but you may periodically need to add more to the area as the tree grows larger.)

Growing Seedlings in Potting Containers

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Within six months of receiving your tree, you should either plant it in the ground or shift it to a larger potting container. The seedling's root system will need room to expand, and without this extra room, the seedling will stop growing.

If you intend to keep your seedling in a container, the following container sizes should apply:

  • For six additional months, shift (transplant) to a 3-gallon container
  • For up to a year, shift to a 5-gallon container

Shifting Your Seedling to a Larger Container

To shift your seedling to a larger container, follow these directions:

Step 1: Add soil. Purchase a small bag of bagged garden soil before you start the shifting process. Use your current one-gallon container to determine how much soil you will need to fill the bottom of the larger container by 2 to 3 inches.

Step 2: Remove the root ball from its container. Once your base layer of soil is packed inside the new container, cut the twine and remove the felt Rootcap disc inside your one-gallon container. You will need to have a free hand available to “catch” the root ball when you invert your seedling's potting container.

Know in advance that the root system of your tree is still very sensitive at this point. Any damage to the root ball (i.e. breaking off a big chunk of the root ball’s soil), can actually damage your young tree. This process of “shifting” your tree to a larger container must be done unhurriedly and with full attention on the steps you are taking. Be very careful and do the job right to avoid damaging your tree, and avoid moving it from container to container as much as possible.

Step 3: Position the root ball in its new container. Once you have the root ball in your hand, position it on top of the soil in the larger container. Again, remember to be gentle with its delicate root system.

Step 4: Assess the top of the root ball. It should be about 2 inches below the rim of the new container. If it is not, gently remove the root ball – keeping it intact – and add more soil to the bottom of your larger container. Continue to add soil until you have 2 inches of air space between the root ball and the rim of your larger container.

While holding the root ball and stem in place, gently fill in air space around the root ball with more soil. Pack it down as much as possible, but don’t let the root ball crack apart in the process.

Step 5: Water your seedling to help pack the soil. Once the root ball has been shifted into the larger container, fill the new container with water to the rim and let it drain down through the new soil until the excess drains through the bottom of the container.

Notes Once Your Seedling Has Been Moved to its New Container

  • Monitor the temperature: Be aware of the nightly temperatures during the winter months while your tree is outside – and the arrival of cold fronts in your area. Always water your tree well one day prior to the arrival of a major cold front, and make a priority of bringing your potted tree indoors during freezing temperatures. Once the tree has been planted into the ground, the soil will act as a protective insulation blanket for the root system and keep it from freezing. Until that time, your tree’s root ball is vulnerable to freeze damage.
  • Leaving your tree outdoors: When locating your containerized tree outdoors during the winter months, you may want to consider a more protected location, especially from north winds, which can blow over your tree if strong enough. Your tree will be in a winter dormant state until late February, so it won’t be actively growing during the winter. It will still need sunshine and once-weekly watering throughout the colder months.
  • Pre-spring “molting”: Live oaks are so named because they display green leaves year-round. During late February or March, your tree will start dropping some of its old leaves from the previous growth season – a molting of sorts. This will happen every year and is a natural part of your tree’s growth cycle. As old leaves drop off the tree, bright new green leaves will be added to replace the old leaves. Every leaf on your tree will drop off at some point within a 12-month period and be replaced by new leaves.

Watering and Freezing Temperatures: Keep the Soil Wet

Continue watering your seedling once per week throughout the winter months – filling it with water completely to the rim of the container each time and allowing the excess water to drain through the container bottom.

Whenever the temperature drops down to freezing or below, always give your tree a thorough watering before the cold snap arrives. Wet soil is much better during cold conditions than dry soil – and helps prevent freeze damage to the root system. As long as the tree remains in its container, remember that the root system is vulnerable to freeze damage. So keep the soil wet during freezing conditions to prevent freeze damage.

Indoors / Outdoors

If possible (and especially if the temperatures drop into the mid-20’s or below), bring your potted seedling indoors during freezing temperatures. A garage will be fine as long as the air temperature is warmer than outdoors. And don’t forget to water your tree in advance of the cold snap.

Otherwise, leave your tree outdoors in full sunshine 24/7 throughout the winter, always watering once per week – or more often if the temps dip below freezing.

Post-Planting Care: Watering and Pruning

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Watering After Planting

For the first year after planting, your seedling still needs to be watered well once per week, 52 weeks per year. It won’t require a lot of water each time, but the frequency will be important in order for your tree to establish its root system in the ground.

I recommend a very simple, efficient watering method for your newly planted seedling – and for a taller sapling as your tree grows. It's called a TREE IV, and it's available for purchase online.

Sprinkler systems do not provide enough water for your tree, so plan accordingly when planting.

Pruning your tree

Know in advance that you will eventually trim off ALL of the lower branches on your tree within three or four years, so don’t worry about your tree looking a bit “bushy” during its early years. Those lower branches actually help the tree stem grow stronger, as the tree senses it will have permanent lower branches growing from the stem and “beefs up” the lower stem to support them. So leave those lower branches on your tree for a couple of years and allow your tree stem to grow stronger.

Eventually, you will want to prune off all of the lower branches below the 4-foot or 5-foot level from the ground – so that the remaining lower branches will be the lowest permanent branches as your tree grows older.

As your tree grows larger, and in the interest of making it look its best, it's best to hire a professional tree trimmer to give your tree a haircut every so often. If you do the job yourself, you may not be pleased with the long-term results. A pro will do a better job – and you will be more pleased with the way your tree looks. Once you cut off a limb, it can never be re-attached, so always use a pro.

If deer are present...

Deer

If deer live on the property where your tree is planted, you will need to take some preventive measures to protect your new Century Tree seedling. Deer love to nibble the leaves and branches off of young seedlings, and they will literally eat your tree to death unless you prevent it.

Yes, it’s added trouble and expense. But I strongly recommend that you use t-posts and plastic deer fence to build a deer fence around your planted tree. You can still use your TREE IV and water it from outside the fence.

This fence will need to be at least six feet tall, even though your seedling is tiny right now. Soon, the tree will grow taller and extend above the six-foot tall deer fence. Deer have been known to stand up on their hind legs and reach up with their neck to eat leaves from a growing tree nine feet above the ground.

It’s your choice whether to protect your Century Tree seedling from deer. If you want your seedling to survive in deer country, please take necessary measures to protect it.