Ask the master gardeners
Q: My wife and I were recently given a Japanese stewartia as a wedding gift. We want to be sure to plant it correctly, so it will not die soon afterwards. Can you help?
A: First, congratulations! Not only on your wedding but also for becoming the proud owners of what will soon become a beautiful year-round garden tree. Native to Japan as the name implies, the Japanese stewartia is in the tea/camellia family and is a fine candidate for gardens in the Northeast.
This tree prefers and thrives in an acid soil (pH 4.5-5.6) with ample moisture and high organic content, but it has proven to be very adaptive in a range of soils, from compacted clay to loamy sand. It is also highly drought tolerant, with no major pests or disease issues.
Its light requirements are part shade/part sun so you may want to take a look at your yard over the course of a sunny day to assess the most suitable location. It would also be well worth it to have a soil test done at your local Cooperative Extension to really zero in on the best site. Believe me, it will be money well spent. Once you settle on the site it is time to get your hands dirty.
Prepare the site by loosening the soil in a wide area about five times larger than the actual planting hole. It is not necessary to dig the hole any deeper than the root ball. In fact it can be detrimental to do so since planting too deep can hinder growth and even kill the tree over time. Make sure the root flare is visible above the soil line.
After you have prepared the hole, remove all inorganic matter from the root ball such as any nylon rope, metal wire, nursery mesh or any preservative-treated plastic burlap. If you’ve chosen a site that is complimentary to the tree’s needs, there is no need to add any soil conditioners.
Before you place the root ball in the hole make sure to spread and tease out the root system to encourage proper root growth and orientation. Once done, return the soil you put aside earlier and firm it up without compacting the soil excessively — this can hinder water and nutrient absorption.
There is no need to stake the newly planted tree. It is more important to thoroughly water it from the base of the root ball out to the surrounding soil. Keep it moist but not saturated throughout the growing season. In the first year it is especially important to keep it well watered right up to late autumn or early winter’s first freeze.
Even though the Japanese stewartia is a slow grower, it will give you year-round pleasure thanks to its many fine attributes and characteristics. It is a medium-sized deciduous tree ranging from 30 to 40 feet tall and 25-30 feet wide at maturity. It has beautiful white and yellow camellia-like flowers that bloom long after other trees have finished flowering.
After a few years you will be rewarded with a spectacular blaze of yellow and red autumn foliage. Thanks to its close-to-the-ground symmetrical branching pattern it retains a pleasing silhouette after the leaves have fallen. It has a distinctive multicolored bark that peels away to reveal a gray, cinnamon and brown pattern that adds visual appeal and contrasts nicely with our snows.
Your wedding guest has presented you with a very fine addition to your garden, and with proper care it is sure to give you many years of joy long after the toasters and blenders have bit the dust.
Patrick J. Cicalo, master gardener trainee, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Westchester