volunteers at a young tree care service day

Caring For Young Trees

The first five years are critical for the long-term health of a tree. Proper watering, pruning, and other tree care will ensure a healthy, mature tree and drastically reduce future maintenance costs.

Note: While Canopy recommends proper young tree pruning, please do not prune Palo Alto street trees, as the City ordinance does not permit residents to prune street trees. 


Guidelines for Young Trees

Conserve water and preserve trees by following these guidelines.

  • Deep watering. Young trees require regular watering for good health and disease prevention. Deep watering (see watering instructions below) prevents weak surface roots from forming and encourages the growth of robust roots underground.
  • Check soil moisture once a week 4-6 inches below the surface. Soil should be moist but not wet.
  • Watch for signs of drought stress. Are leaves wilting, yellowing, curling or browning at the edges?
  • Plants and weeds compete with the tree for water and nutrients. Keep the base of the tree free of other living plants such as weeds or grass.
  • Use mulch to suppress weeds and conserve moisture. Cover the soil with a 3- to 5-inch layer of mulch starting a few inches from the base of the trunk and extending 1–2 feet from the tree in all directions (creating a circle around the tree).
  • Lawn irrigation does not provide adequate irrigation for trees. Lawn irrigation or light sprinkling for 5 to 10 minutes waters only a few inches of soil and encourages weak surface roots.
  • Protect young trees from chemicals. Pesticides and herbicides can burn or damage a young tree’s roots and leaves.

Watering Young Trees

Watering instructions to grow a healthy tree

Learn specific needs about your tree species at Canopy’s Tree Library.

After planting through Year 1:

  • Three days after planting, fill the watering basin three times using a total of 15-20 gallons of water. This initial watering is very important as roots are the most sensitive right after planting.
  • For the next 3 weeks, fill the watering basin once a week with 5-10 gallons of water.
  • For the next 6 months following the planting, fill the watering basin every week or every other week with 10-15 gallons of water.
  • For the remainder of the first year, water every other week with 10-15 gallons in absence of soaking rain. Roots need oxygen just as much as they need water, and conservation at this stage will actually help your tree(s) grow!
  • Note: Keep your young tree mulched to suppress weeds and protect young roots from drying out.

Year 2:

  • When rain is scarce, usually beginning in late spring, begin watering again every two to four weeks with 15-20 gallons of water, depending on the tree species.
  • Allow roots to seek out moisture deeper underground and further from the trunk, creating a resilient tree. Shallow watering leads to shallow roots and water dependency. Deeper, infrequent watering will lead to resilient trees with less impactful roots.
  • Maintain the watering basin so it continues to hold water, and spread it out to hold more water over time.

Years 3-5:

  • For years 3 to 5, water at least once a month with 20-30 gallons of water. Monthly soakings should maximize growth while conserving water. Many irrigation timers actually have a setting for monthly watering. You can also set several start times 15 to 30 minutes apart, to decrease runoff and improve soil penetration.
  • Over the next two summers experiment with decreasing frequency and increasing duration and coverage.
  • Be wary of prolonged dry periods, proper summer watering can mean the difference between a tree that thrives and one that is permanently stunted.
  • Between 3 and 5 years old, your tree should be fully established. Occasional deep watering, especially during times of drought, will help your tree thrive.


Pruning Young Trees

Five steps to young tree pruning

  1. Remove dead, dying, damaged, diseased branches.
  2. Select and establish the central leader.
  3. Select the lowest permanent branch (LPB) based on tree location/purpose.
  4. Select and establish scaffold branches.
  5. Select temporary branches below the LPB and remove or head back others.

Watch Larry Costello and Ellyn Shea’s video for homeowners:

Take a look at Trees A and B below.

Tree A:

young tree 2
Tree B:

tree b 2

Compare the two trees:

Cost: Which tree is more likely to become costly to maintain? A or B?
Safety: Which tree is more likely to become a safety hazard?  A or B?
Longevity: Which tree is more likely to live a shorter life?  A or B?

The correct answer is Tree B: it will be more costly to maintain, more of a safety hazard, and will likely have a shorter life.

What’s the difference between happy Tree A and unhappy Tree B? Tree A was pruned at a young age to have a central leader (central trunk), while Tree B was not.

A tree without a central leader is less structurally sound, and more likely to need costly and unsightly pruning as it matures. Trees lacking a strong structure are also vulnerable to serious limb breakages during a storm.


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