Tree Care Resources

TreeFolks follows the “Right Tree, Right Place” principle. Simply put, this states that you should only plant a suitable tree in the proper location to avoid significant long-term maintenance and care issues. Luckily, there are many different trees suitable for planting in Austin, so you’re sure to find one that works for you! Of course, the best spot for your tree is a location in which it will have appropriate light, water, and space.

TreeFolks recommends small stature trees for small, tight spaces. You can occasionally find a columnar cultivars trees which typically grow more up than out, but even those can spread wide enough to cause problems. Plus, many of our smaller trees can handle less than full sunlight, an issue facing many urban yards. Several great ideas for small, native trees include Anacacho orchid trees, Texas mountain laurels, red and Texas buckeyes, Texas persimmons, and Lacey and Canby oaks.

For slightly larger spaces that still have some size constraints, TreeFolks recommends medium stature trees. Many medium stature trees require full sunlight. These include many flowering beans like huisaches, retamas, and mesquites and most fruit trees, but most fruit trees require significant yearly maintenance for proper production. The common fig is an easy, medium sized fruit tree that requires minimal maintenance and even produces well in partial shade. Other medium sized trees include Eve’s necklace trees, chinkapin oaks, goldenball leadtrees, Texas ashes, bigtooth maples, anacuas, and Eastern redcedars.

Wide-open spaces at least 20 feet from structures and utilities are a great place for a large-stature shade tree. Large trees can sometimes grow quickly, so planting them in cramped quarters can cause problems faster than you might realize. Well away from buildings their sprawling limbs and spreading roots will not interfere with infrastructure but they will still provide the ecosystem services expected of a shade tree, like lowered energy bills and cooler ambient temperatures. Great shade trees for our area include Bur oaks, Mexican white oaks, pecans, Arizona and black walnuts, Austin red oaks, cedar elms, Montezuma cypresses, and live oaks.

Research has shown that trees planted less than 5 feet from sidewalks and driveways are not as healthy or long-lived as trees that are given more space for their roots; furthermore, it is a violation of Austin’s City Code to allow trees and other vegetation to overgrow or obstruct the public right of way.

Free and Affordable Trees
If you are within the Austin City Limits or an Austin Energy customer, you are eligible to adopt a free tree from TreeFolks! Our NeighborWoods program run in partnership with the City of Austin adopts out free 5-gallon trees to Austinites to support the urban canopy.

Besides TreeFolks, unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of options when it comes to low-cost trees. Most “cheap” trees aren’t good for Texas or just aren’t good quality stock in general. TreeFolks has a wholesale license that allows us to buy at lower costs, and often we can work with groups to coordinate purchases alongside our own. If you are looking for a higher return on investment, you should plant saplings like us! They often establish faster than larger trees and definitely cost less.

Another great way to get inexpensive trees is to grow your own! Collecting seeds is fun and growing trees is very rewarding. We have developed several protocols to help you out, too! Contact education@treefolks.org for more information.

Buying a Tree
Below is a list of Austin area nurseries that are known for high quality, native and adapted a tree stock listed in alphabetical order:

Barton Springs Nursery
Garden Seventeen
Hill Country Natives
The Great Outdoors
The Natural Gardener
Tillery St. Plant Company

When purchasing a tree, you should always inspect each tree carefully. Invasive species should not be considered in planting projects, and non-natives should only be planted with purpose and consideration of their long list of care requirements. Trees with dead or broken branches in the crown or damaged bark should be rejected. So should trees showing stress or signs of disease. The ideal tree should have good vigor, a visible root flare, and minimal weeds in the pot. If the root flare is not visible, dig with a finger until you find it to ensure there are no large girdling roots (this is common practice in a nursery and will not be met with strange looks, we promise!). Also, staked trees should not be staked so tightly that the ties cut into, deform, or damage the bark.

It’s best to buy, and plant, your trees during Central Texas’ planting season: October 1 through March 31.

  1. Plant your tree between October 1 and March 31. Texas Arbor Day is November 6 and is an ideal date for tree planting!
  2. At least an hour before you remove the tree from the pot, water the tree well in its container so the water flows out the bottom. Alternatively, the tree can be left to soak in a bucket for 10-15 minutes and then removed and set aside to drain.
  3. Dig a hole 2-to-3-times as wide as the root ball or container and as deep as the container.
  4. Remove the tree from its container and expose the root flare. Root flares can be buried up to 6 inches below the soil surface. As you are exposing the root flare, also comb out the roots using a small hand rake or a stick so that they hang freely and do not retain the shape of the pot.
  5. Place your shovel across the hole so it rests on both sides. Place the tree in the hole and be sure that the root flare comes up the shovel handle. If your hole is too deep, place a pile of native soil at the bottom of the hole for the tree to rest on and then continue.
  6. Spread the roots out from the center. Make sure they are not piled under the tree or circling the inside of the hole.
  7. Roughen up the sides of the hole if planting in clay soils.
  8. Gently refill the hole with unamended native soil, making sure the root flare is exposed at the right level and the soil is neither compacted nor has large air gaps between soil clods.
  9. Apply a 2-3” thick layer of mulch around the base of the tree, leaving 4” of exposed dirt around the trunk. The mulch should extend as far as the furthest branches or in an approximate 2.5’ foot radius around the tree.
  10. Water at least 20 gallons weekly for 3 years. Replenish and extend the mulch layer as it decomposes and the tree grows.

  1. Water the tree well in its container.
  2. Dig a hole 1.5-to-2-times as wide as the root ball, tube, or bullet and as deep.
  3. Check for girdling roots and lightly break up the root ball using your fingers.
  4. Place the sapling in the hole, ensuring it’s at the right height and all the roots are underground.
  5. Gently refill the hole with unamended native soil, making sure the sapling is at the right level and the soil is not compacted but it is tamped down around the tree. 
  6. Apply a 2-3” thick layer of mulch around the base of the tree, leaving 2” of exposed dirt around the trunk.  The mulch should extend 6” to 1’ from the trunk of the tree to suppress competition from weeds.
  7. Water at least 10 gallons weekly for 3 years. Replenish and extend the mulch layer as it decomposes and the tree grows.

Trees in Texas typically need 10 gallons of water per inch of diameter at breast height (4.5’) every week that it doesn’t rain at least 1 inch.  Younger or recently planted trees need closer to 20 gallons each week it doesn’t rain until they are established (3 years).  To measure the diameter of your tree, first, find how far up the trunk 4.5’ is. But be careful, if your root flare is buried by mulch or dirt, you may not be measuring in the right place.  Once you’ve identified breast height, wrap a string or ribbon around the trunk marking where it crosses over itself on the ribbon. Then, measure the distance between the two marks when you lay the ribbon out flat.  This is your tree’s circumference.  Divide the circumference by pi (3.14) to find the diameter.  Just multiple that by 10 to get gallons needed per week!

But all that water shouldn’t just be sprayed willy-nilly at the tree.  The proper way to water a tree is to first find the flow rate of the water source you are using.  This can easily be calculated by timing how long it takes to fill a five-gallon bucket.  Then divide the gallons needed per week by the time it takes to fill a five-gallon bucket to find the time the water source needs to be left on.  

While on, water spray should be diffused.  A standard garden hose can cause a fair amount of erosion if left on in one spot, so a better solution can be to drill holes in the bottom of a five-gallon bucket or use a clay plant pot to diffuse the stream.  The hose and diffuser combination should be left near the dripline of the tree, or more specifically the edge of the canopy.  This is where there is the largest concentration of feeder roots that can take up the water.  Watering near the trunk actually encourages trunk rot, girdling roots, and all sorts of nasty things!

Each week the tree needs water the hose and diffuser should be put in a different part of the dripline.  The key to watering trees is deeply and infrequently.  This forces them to grow deep roots searching for water.  But, let the soil dry out completely between waterings, and do not water if the soil is still moist and soft. While it is difficult to accomplish in Central Texas, especially during our summers, overwatering is just as deadly as underwatering for most trees.  If it rains more than an inch, you should delay watering by another week or until the soil is dry 1 inch below the surface.

First of all, no mulch volcanos!  A mulch volcano is when you pile mulch up against the trees trunk in such a way that it looks like there is a mulch mountain erupting out a tree like a volcano.  This is a horrible way to mulch a tree: it encourages trunk rot and does little to help the roots.

Secondly, no little mulch rings! A small mulch ring around the base of a large mature shade tree will do nothing to help the trees roots and will instead encourage moisture up against the trunk.  Trees need a lot more mulch than that!

And thirdly and finally, no more inorganic mulches!  While they do reduce water loss from the soil, that’s only half the reason we use mulch.  The breakdown of a mulch layer provides much needed nutrients to the tree by encouraging soil fauna and inorganic mulches do not do that.

The correct way to mulch a tree is to apply a 2-to-4 inch organic (meaning decomposable, not necessarily pesticide free) layer of mulch starting 2 inches away from the trunk and not stopping until you reach the canopy’s edge or drip-line.  Technically, you should mulch the entire Critical Root Zone (CRZ), but mulching under the dripline works well if you’d rather not spread that much mulch.  The CRZ extends 1 foot out from the trunk for ever inch of trunk diameter at breast height.

If you’d like to spread that much mulch (and your trees really would like you to), you’ll need to take some measurements.  To measure the diameter of your tree, first, find how far up the trunk 4.5’ is. But be careful, if your root flare is buried by mulch or dirt, you may not be measuring in the right place.  Once you’ve identified breast height, wrap a string or ribbon around the trunk marking where it crosses over itself on the ribbon. Then, measure the distance between the two marks when you lay the ribbon out flat.  This is your tree’s circumference.  Divide the circumference by pi (3.14) to find the diameter.  That number is also the diameter of the CRZ in feet.  

Always be sure to keep mulch away from the trunk of the tree.  Mulch up against the trunk encourages trunk rot and tree death!

When in Doubt, Find an Arborist!

Tree pruning is difficult to teach over the internet. There are too many variables, and nothing really beats hands-on learning in this respect. Given the limited window of engagement, it’s really only possible to impart enough knowledge to be dangerous. You have been warned! You cannot re-attach a limb if you make the wrong cut. Every wound a tree gets exists in that tree forever. They do not heal like an animal, they seal through a process called C.O.D.I.T. and grow over the damage. But! Proper structural pruning is essential on young trees to avoid problems down the road.

Early pruning in a tree’s life can minimize the need for pruning once it has matured, but it can be important to remove dead or dying branches or limbs that have grown too close to structures from a mature tree. It is important to understand tree biology and pruning responses before you get started as every cut has the potential to dramatically alter the tree’s growth.

Generally, pruning cuts made before the spring growth flush have the best chance of healing, but some trees can respond poorly to spring cuts and “bleed to death” due to sap pressure from the roots. So, make sure to learn the specific requirements for the tree you plan to prune. Most trees will not need much pruning in their lifespan; however, urban trees can be quite different.

Remember, any limb larger than 2” is large enough for a professional to remove. Tree limbs can be very heavy and fall in unexpected ways. You should always have a clear escape route and proper PPE!

Troubleshooting Issues With Your Tree

When in Doubt, Find an Arborist!

Some tree illnesses and stresses can be treated appropriately with items that can be purchased from big box stores, others can be require more involved solutions. If you know what is ailing your tree, finding the correct treatment and treatment plan can be as simple as reading a label or contacting education@treefolks.org. If you are unsure of the problem, it might be time to call in the professionals. TreeFolks recommends having an ISA-certified arborist inspect your tree if you suspect it is declining in health for any reason.

Most invasive trees in Central Texas are commonly found along our waterways. The Austin Watershed Protection Department has come out with this brochure to help educate the public on invasive species.

Invasive trees pose a big problem in natural areas. They reproduce rapidly and replace native species. Girdling, or scraping off a section of bark around the circumference of the tree, is a chemical-free and effective way to kill unwanted invasive trees. This technique can be a great addition to a riparian restoration land management plan. 

For more information, visit https://www.austintexas.gov/creekside and https://www.austintexas.gov/invasive.

Deer are a major problem when it comes to establishing trees in Central Texas.  They eat the foliage and rub their antlers on the bark.  In areas with a lot of deer, trees less than 8” in diameter need to be fenced to ensure their establishment or wrapped in plastic trunk guards to deter damage from rubbing.  Deer fencing should be a heavy gauge wire mesh, at least 2’ away from the trunk of the tree and 3-4’ high and secured to the ground with T-posts or something similar. Corrugated plastic tubing often used for drainage can work well as a trunk guard when split down a side to allow easy application to the tree trunk.  If trunk guards are used, they should only be used when the deer are actively rubbing to ensure that insects and fungus do not find a happy home between the trunk guard and the trunk.

Deer fencing has the added benefit of acting as a clear indicator to mowers and pedestrians that there are recently planted trees nearby.  Sometimes people’s protection can be just as important as deer protection!

TreeFolks does not recommend tree staking unless absolutely necessary.  Trees naturally move in the wind need that stimulus to grow a strong trunk that will support their adult weight.  Tightly staking a tree can encourage weaker trunk growth, and staking straps left too long can girdling trees.

Fighting the loss of local tree cover means fighting why those trees are being lost. Many trees in Austin’s urban forest are planted way too deep and need their root flare exposed!  The root flare is the widening of the trunk before the roots. This is a metabolically active portion of the trunk that needs oxygen to survive. Covering the root flare encourages girdling roots, rot, disease, and ultimately tree loss due to the death of the trunk. 

If your tree appears to go straight into the ground with little to no widening at the base, there is a good chance it is buried too deeply.  Even mature trees are at risk here due to development and well-meaning tree owners.  Using your hands, root rakes, trowels, or any tools you like, you should dig down by your tree’s trunk until you find the first root to branch off.  This is the start of the root flare.  Mature trees should have multiple roots coming off at this point, but younger trees may only have 1 or 2.  Trees that have been buried too deeply for a long time may have sprouted roots above the root flare.  These can be pruned off.  The tree should be excavated to the depth of the root flare about as far from the trunk as the tree is wide at the base.  

Diseases to Look Out For

The City of Austin has an excellent oak wilt resource page you can find here.

Bacterial leaf scorch (BLS) is a bacterial disease that affects trees and woody plants.  It is vectored by insects, specifically things like leafhoppers, and lingers in asymptomatic hosts in the landscape like grasses and small forbs.  Trees affected by BLS will flush with normal leaves that will quickly become scorched in appearance.  The tree will drop these leaves and often grow another set which may or may not show the same symptoms.  BLS is easily confused with abiotic leaf scorching which can be caused by hot dry air.  

There is no cure for BLS and affected trees will often be lost after a few years.   You can prolong their life through proper care, and infected trees have not been shown to be a disease source for BLS.

Fire blight is a bacterial disease that affects plants in the rose family. These include several fruit trees for our area such as apples, pears, loquats, and their relatives. Fire blight usually enters through the flowers or pruning cuts and causes withered, blackened stems and leaves in affected areas.

Affected portions of the tree should be removed to slow the disease progression. Make the cut at least 12” below the infection to ensure no infected tissue remains and be sure to clean your tools even between cuts on the same tree.
Heavily infected trees can be treated with antibiotics to slow and cure the disease, but often complete removal and destruction of the infected tissue is recommended. Fire blight is extremely infectious and can spread quickly through an orchard or garden.

Ganoderma is a type of bracket fungus that feeds on wood.  It usually infects the base of trees and the roots resulting in a decline in the tree’s health and ultimately its death and failure.  The fungus digests the structural components of the wood rendering it unable to support the tree’s weight.  Mature infected trees can be treated with fungicides, but younger trees may need to be replaced if infected.

Galls and burls are aberrant growth in trees caused by an external stimulus.  They can be indicators of disease, but usually are the result of insects and physical damage.  Galls are swellings in the stems or leaves.  They can appear like another organism adhered to the surface of the tissue or merely a slightly swollen area of the tissue.  Galls are usually caused by insects laying their eggs in the plant’s tissue and causing that reaction through signaling molecules injected with the egg.  Generally, they are just a cosmetic issue.

Burls are usually the result of mechanical damage or occasionally fungal infections.  Burls are disorganized xylem tissue (wood).  The curling and confused xylem channels result in the cloudlike grain found in burls, and often reduce the efficacy of water transport in the tree.  Burls can also be homes for things like ants and other insects.  Burls are usually only a cosmetic issue, but open wounds and necrotic tissues may need to be inspected by an arborist. 

What to do in Extreme Weather

Flash droughts, sudden temperature spikes coupled with low humidity, are a newer phenomenon and we are still unsure on the proper way to bolster a tree against its effects.  Flash droughts are often hard to see coming, so it is usually a game of supporting the tree through the aftereffects.  Flash droughts generally cause leaf scorch, so proper mulching and watering are suggested best management practices.

Austin is in the USDA climate zone 8b with a few small pockets of 9a meaning it usually does not get colder that 15 degrees F, and when it does it usually doesn’t last that long.  Generally speaking, any tree rated for 8b will do well here as long as it has decent drought tolerance and can handle alkaline soil, but TreeFolks still recommends natives for most planting projects.  

During winter storm Uri in 2021, many non-native plantings were lost but even native plants saw significant dieback.  In order to protect against cold weather, watering should always be the first plan of action.  The damage from Uri’s cold temperatures were compounded by the fact that Austin was experiencing drought when the freeze hit. More water in the plants tissues buffers against dramatic temperature swings, so without that even some cold tolerant plants can be lost to freezing temperatures.  Beyond watering, small trees can be covered with cloth, but it must go all the way to the ground and be secured to offer protection.  A healthy mulch layer will protect the roots.  For zone pushing gardeners that grow citrus, it may be wise to dig up small trees and move them to a more protected location for the duration of the weather.  People have reported success by wrapping trees in holiday lights (incandescent work best, but LED still afford some heat), placing heaters under blankets with trees (WARNING: this is a fire hazard), or filling buckets with hot water and placing them around the trunk (water must be changed regularly to keep it warm).  

After a hard freeze and significant damage, you do not want to prune until the following winter to ensure the tree grows enough to support its root mass.  By the next cycle of dormancy, it will be time to do some heavy structural pruning to ensure the longevity of the tree.  Occasionally, with significant dieback in larger trees, there may be dangerous branches.  These should be dealt with immediately through the help of a certified arborist.

Standing water around a tree’s roots for longer than 12 hours can be a death sentence for most trees. A select few riparian species can handle flooding for longer periods, but most Texas natives cannot. Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do to address these issues except to plan plantings carefully and pay attention to the hydrology of the land.

Flash flooding is a separate issue. Flash flooding involves water moving over the land and usually causes erosion and debris flow. A high-quality mulch ring, letting the grass grow a bit longer, and raised beds are all great solutions to slowing down water flow and reducing its effects on your tree. Debris in flood water can damage tree trunks, so if that is a concern, properly secured deer fencing should also prove effective in this regard.

We are here to help! Please contact TreeFolks’ Education Program so we can help you and your tree get the help needed!  You can reach us at education@treefolks.org.