“If I Had A Nickel”

Having been raised the son of a country boy whose family hails from the Southern Indiana/Kentucky area, I’ve been subjected to many rich and witty expressions as “Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it” or “boy, you have to make hay when the sun shines” or one of my all time favorites “If I had a nickel for every time I heard that”. In the same spirit, I plan to begin a series of ‘If I had a nickel’ experiences I’ve enjoyed in my 27 years of arboriculture.

While visiting more than 1000 clients and prospect properties each year, my fellow arborists and I at the Indianapolis Bartlett office routinely encounter common concerns, misconceptions or presumptions of our clientele. While many of these concerns become quite routine or automatic for us as arborists, they remain new experiences for much of our client base. With any hope, a tiny grain of our experience planted in the minds of others may help glean some wisdom or insight, and help manage or improve the care of their trees and shrubs.

The first of such experiences I want to share is:

“It gets fertilized with the lawn”
Really? And, how much fertilizer does the lawn get? When my mechanic changes the oil in my car, it is not his general practice to change the tires for free too. And, this is understandably so. If only 5 quarts of oil are required to do the job, why throw in a set of tires? It would only increase his material costs and labor. The truth is that turf grass and woody plants (trees and shrubs) have very different nutritional needs to support their growth and health. When we fertilize trees and shrubs, we don’t apply enough to support the lawn! Fiscal logic aside, counting on your turf applications to provide essential elements for your trees and shrubs eliminates the most important aspects of fertilization. That is: knowing what the plant needs and what is available. The days of throwing a couple of handfuls of 12-12-12 on the ground or driving in a dozen spikes are hopefully near the very end of a useless life cycle. As environmental concerns grow (and expectations for actual results from service providers), providing sound and effective treatment is becoming more and more important. Determining what will be the most effective approach begins with knowledge of specific and localized plant needs. If the pH is off, but all element levels are sufficient, 12-12-12 will accomplish nothing. Conversely, adding a handful of the same product when three times the nitrogen is needed, none of the phosphorous, half the potassium, and additional microelements, this may barely begin to effect an improvement. But, you saved money! I am still looking for a way to save money without compromising the results I expect. Perhaps it will exist in the next life. At Bartlett Tree Experts, one of the greatest benefits of soil sampling in the Indiana area for the last 15 years is the database full of information we now have at our fingertips. For those of you rushing to know what the averages are so you can take a low cost, wholesale shot at fertilization yourselves; shame, shame, shame. You’re not paying attention. If it has taught me anything, it is that without completing a soil analysis for every fertilization project, you simply do not know what is lacking and what is not. Does that mean we need to analyze the soil around every plant on our property? Only if you live in Utopia. While it would be optimal, it simply would not be practical to perform soil analysis around every single plant you intend to fertilize when multiple plants are being treated on a property. It is reasonable to group plantings with like requirements and installed in like conditions on a single property using the results of one analysis. It may be more effective to break out key plantings where higher expectations for results exist, even if soil conditions appear similar. Sometimes, an area of washout, grade change, or compaction issues can lead to significant soil differences within a matter of feet. That’s right, don’t forget to check the bulk density level of your soil when you analyze. Remember that when home sites or commercial buildings are developed, conscientious developers and builders intentionally compact soils to what is known as ‘engineering specs’ to provide adequate support for their structures. Sometimes, a few inches of topsoil (if it can ever be described as such) is applied to the top of said soil, and its’ ready for landscaping. (I’m glad not to be a tree.) Much of these soils in Indiana begin with finely-particled clay, you know, where bricks and clay tile pipes begin! While it is better to address this problem before plants are installed, it is now possible to remediate compacted soils with Bartlett’s patented root invigoration process.

Everything about a tree begins in the soil and root relationship. From the day of germination throughout the life of the tree, water and elements must pass from the soil into the roots to support growth of everything else beyond that point. This is the most basic and essential premise of soil management. If survival and growth of your trees are important to you, don’t leave their most essential needs to guesswork and assumptions. Be specific and intentional and you will see the fruits of your efforts.


Local Manager – Indianapolis, IN
ISA Board-Certified Master Arborist
Indiana Pesticide Applicator

Working in the Tree Care Industry for 25 years and employed by Bartlett Tree Experts for 15 years in an Arborist Representative position becoming Local Manager of Bartlett's Indianapolis tree service office after one year of employment. Married with three children. Hobbies include sports (playing and coaching) hiking, camping, and being outdoors.

Posted in Fertilization, Tree Advice Tagged with: care, tree, trees
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Being a leader in the tree care industry means continually focusing on learning and innovation. Bartlett’s Tree Topics blog follows in that tradition by offering a place to receive advice on trees, tree pests, tree preservation, and more.

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