Losing trees #1: Coddling

I’ve been at this for over 20 years now, and have lost a LOT of trees…some heartbreakers, some backbreakers, and plenty of “ish…” trees, as the kids say. This series, “losing trees” will periodically address common mistakes that lead to; you guessed it, losing trees.

Coddling is defined as, “to cook an egg at just under the boiling point.”…and more appropriately for our discussion: “to treat in an indulgent or overprotective way.”

Coddling is very common beginner mistake, often because they feel that their tree can’t survive in the conditions provided, or because they’re trying to grow an out-of-zone tree.

What happens when we haul trees inside and back outside to protect them from weather fluctuations? Their soil and ambient temperatures remain higher, which triggers an early end to dormancy. As I write this post (March 6, 2015), my trees are outside, with the remnants of yesterday’s “snow” littering the surface of the frozen soil:

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The forecast has been goofy; 80 Wednesday, 30 and freezing rain on Thursday, it was 18 this morning, and after tomorrow, temps are forecasted to stay warm and rainy, so everything is about to start growing.

With 1 horticultural exception, my trees “ride it out” in the rugged outdoors with their in-ground counterparts. If I have repotted something early for any reason, I’ll move it to the garage during the freezing nights. That’s it…and I try to delay repotting until as late as possible for this reason!

Here’s the point. Trees will be fine without us; it’s likely you can see a tree out your window right now that has been there longer than you’ve been alive, which has never received any attention from you. So long as they can survive in your climate, and have access to water, they should be fine. In a pot, we need to take care of the water, but if you grow varieties that could survive indefinitely in your yard without your care, you’re less likely to coddle it!

When we coddle trees, they become needy! They start growing sooner, and need constant protection from cold, wind, and eventually, stronger sun. They attract insects, are prone to fungal attacks, and have challenging watering needs. All of these problems can lead to dead trees.

A comparison. These photos are both trident maples, both taken on the same day, and the trees are located less than 2 miles apart. One was brought inside during cold weather, and the other was left to its own devices. Which one needs extra care tonight when the temps go back down to 25?

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In defense of my friend who owns the trident in leaf; it was shipped to him a couple weeks ago, and he didn’t know what cold exposure it had already received this winter. It is a healthy tree and will be outside from this point forward. However, I have visited several friends whose trees are almost in full leaf now, as a result of bringing them in to protect from the cold weather. Many of them are nearly through repotting. I haven’t even started!

What are the lessons?
1. Grow what grows in your area.
2. Try to avoid “modifying” the trees’ environment. If your climate requires you to store trees in a garage, it is best to take initial precautions to eliminate fluctuations in temperature to avoid an early end to dormancy.
3. Trees are tough! And are meant to tough out the elements.

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2 thoughts on “Losing trees #1: Coddling

  1. You have no idea how close to home this is for me. I just did my first winter and totally coddled my trees and now my tridents are all leafed out. I did buy them from a guy in northern Florida and had to slip pot them in December here in Raleigh, NC but still I worry what it may do to them mid summer due to a lack of full dormancy. Great post! Thanks

  2. I am so guiltyBrian. I left the Pines and Junipers out, but everything else came in to a unheated cottage in January. Not everything is leafed out, but some are getting there. I’ll take your advise next winter.
    John W

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