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Friday - October 10, 2008

From: Kingsland, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Container Gardens, Compost and Mulch, Transplants, Trees
Title: Holding an Acer rubrum in a container for two years
Answered by: Barbara Medford


Dear Mr. Smarty Plants, I am thinking about ordering a Red Maple tree that is cultivated from Mount Vernon. I appreciate the historic nature of such a tree. The tree will be shipped to me and is advertised to be a height of 1-3 feet. My question: is it a tree that I can maintain in a large container until it has grown some more and better able to survive on my lot near Kingsland, where I plan to build within the next couple of years?


From our Native Plant Database on Acer rubrum (red maple):

"Very tolerant of soils, however, prefers slighly acid, moist condition; tolerant of ozone and intermediately tolerant of sulphur dioxide. Not particulary urban tolerant, although planted in ever-increasing numbers in cities."

The red maple is native to both Virginia and Texas, but more so to East Texas, with its moist acidic soil than West Texas, with alkaline, rocky, often dry soils. Frankly, our first impulse is to discourage keeping a tree in a container for up to two years. One of the biggest problems with trees that are purchased from commercial nurseries is that they have been in containers too long and become rootbound. 

We went to a website, Gardening Know How, Growing Trees in Containers, to try and get some ideas on just how difficult it might be, understanding that you are anxious to preserve a heritage tree. It would appear, from this article, that it is doable, provided it is shipped properly and in a timely manner and arrives in a robust condition. Since it sounds as though the tree won't be much more than a seedling at the time of purchase, hopefully the roots will not yet have been affected by container size. We would certainly recommend that you immediately move it into a much larger pot, with good drainage, and one you believe will be roomy enough for two years' root growth. Since its pretty small and with not very well developed roots, you are probably going to need to give it some support to make sure it grows up straight and tall. Every time it is repotted or moved, it is going to experience a great deal of stress. It is going to have to be monitored for soil moisture, as any plant in a pot will dry out more quickly. It will also need to be protected from severe heat and cold, for the same reason. Roots in the dirt are insulated by the whole Earth, roots in a pot have only a little dirt and some plastic insulating them. We would query the vendor on how it will be shipped, whether in a pot with appropriate soil or perhaps bare-root? If bare-root, how long has it been out of the ground before it is shipped? Is there an "arrive alive" guarantee? If you give it the thumbnail test, scratching the bark with your thumbnail, and there is no green layer beneath the bark, it didn't arrive alive. 

Assuming that everything works, and the little tree is thriving when you get ready to plant it in the ground at your new property, more preparation is important. Remember, when selecting the site, that maples tend to have surface roots that can be invasive and disruptive of paving, driveways, even foundations. Place it accordingly, even if you think it will be 20 years before it becomes a problem. As you will note in the quotation from our database, this tree is tolerant of soils, so it should be able to adjust to the more alkaline soil in West Texas.  Nevertheless, it wouldn't hurt to begin preparing the site where you wish to plant the tree ahead of time by amending the soil. Some good organic compost will always help in adjusting soil Ph, and certainly will improve drainage and the ability of the roots to take up trace minerals needed for flourishing. Transplanting in cool weather, when the tree is near dormant, is also a good idea. It should be watered by thrusting a hose down in the soil, letting it drip slowly until water appears on the surface, and repeating two or three times a week, more often in hot weather.

So, to answer your question, yes, we think you can do it, but be prepared to spend considerable time keeping the tree not only alive but healthy, so it can grace your new garden for a long time to come. 

Acer rubrum

Acer rubrum

Acer rubrum

Acer rubrum




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