My daughter moved into a brand new house earlier this summer. Like so many new builds, the landscaping allowance included one sad, lonely tree stuck on the corner and three bushes – her choice from an unimaginative standard list. Bit by bit she’s been adding to the yard, but now it’s time to do some serious tree planting. Before that first shovel breaks the ground though, she has lots to consider.
The first step in finding the perfect trees is to decide what you want from your tree.
- Are you interested in the aesthetics? Trees can become focal points, adding color, fragrance or interesting texture to the existing design.
- Is function more important to you? The right mix of trees and shrubs for example, can significantly reduce noise levels on your property, creating a peaceful retreat in which to relax after a stressful day at work. Trees can be used to screen unpleasant views, or to give a backyard a sense of privacy using nature instead of 6 ft wood fences.
- Are you looking to add an architectural element to your landscape design? Imagine the elegance of a room created by the overarching branches of a corridor of trees.
- Do you want to bring wildlife to your yard? Trees are a vital source of food, shelter and cover for many species of birds, mammals and insects throughout the year. In areas that have been cleared to make construction easier, newly planted trees can be a life saver for wildlife.
- Do you need shade? Adding shade trees can help make the outdoors much more comfortable, even on the hottest summer days.
- How much maintenance do you want to do? Some species are beautiful, but messy. They have large leaves or fruit that will need to be periodically disposed of. A few varieties of trees are notorious for constantly dropping small twigs on the ground; others will need pruning to maintain an attractive shape.
Once you’ve determined what’s important to you, then the next step is to do a site analysis.
- Are there overhead wires or security lights? A small sapling today can become a towering tree tomorrow, and if it's in the wrong place, it can cause problems for you and the utility companies in your area. Large shade trees should be planted at least 30 to 45 feet away from power lines.
- Is there a sidewalk, driveway or other hard surface close by? The taproot of a tree burrows deep into the ground to help anchor the tree. Other roots reach out horizontally grabbing soil particles while they search for moisture and nutrients. As the relatively shallow horizontal roots expand, they can damage hard surfaces by lifting them out of the ground. It’s best to plant trees at least 8 feet away from hard surfaces.
- How large is the planting bed? To be visually pleasing, a mature tree needs to fit proportionally in its surroundings. A tree that is too large will overpower the landscape. A tree that is too small will become lost.
- How much light will the tree have? Will it significantly differ from season to season? Sunlight is a vital element in both photosynthesis and transpiration. Trees that receive less than a few hours of sunlight each day eventually will become weak, misshapen and even dangerous.
- What are the environmental conditions of the planting bed? Is the planting bed level or sloped? What is the soil type? What is the ph? What is the average rainfall? How well does the soil drain? How windy is the area? What are the average temperatures over the course of a year? What is the level of air pollution the tree will be exposed to? Each of these factors can have a significant role in how well or how poorly a tree does at the time of planting and as it grows. Understanding the specifics of the environment can help you narrow down your choices to those that will be best suited to your chosen planting area.
The final step in the tree planting process (before you actually purchase and plant the tree) is to do some serious tree research.
By knowing the characteristics of individual species, you can eliminate those that won’t work for you and identify the ones that will thrive. Two excellent sources of accurate and reliable information are your state’s extension service and your state's conservation department. Their information is usually accessible online or by requesting that hard copies be mailed directly to your home.
Three other sources that I have found helpful for online tree research are:
- Cornell University’s Urban Horticulture Institute’s plant search database http://woodyplants.cals.cornell.edu/plant/search,
- the Arbor Day Foundation’s tree wizard https://www.arborday.org/shopping/trees/treewizard/intro.cfm
and for native trees,
- GrowNative’s plant database https://grownative.org/native-plant-database.
All three are very user friendly, letting you input options like planting zone, mature size, amount of sunlight and soil type, then giving you several alternatives to consider.
With fall planting season right around the corner, it's important to begin making decisions now. Next week we will look at some of the differences between bare root, container or b & B trees.