Planting a tree is one of the best, low-cost investments property owners can do for themselves and for the community. Trees clean air, prevent erosion, manage stormwater, cool landscapes, provides beauty, and increases property values, to name a few. These benefits are only enjoyed when the right tree is planted in the right place. Proper tree selection is just as important as proper tree care, once in the ground.
Good tree care starts before planting the tree. There are important factors to consider that will help guide in selecting an appropriate tree species and the proper placement of the tree. Before running out to the local nursery to make a purchase, review the following considerations:
- What purpose or function is expected from the tree? Trees provide several purposes and hold many roles in our urban forest. Large, deciduous trees are ideal for providing shade to patios, play areas, and homes. Evergreen trees do well as windbreak, privacy screening, and provide year-round color to the landscape. Ornamental flowering trees and trees with brilliant fall season color add beauty to the landscape. Water management is often desired from trees. “Water-loving” trees such as Bald Cypress and Birch trees will help reduce standing water in low areas of properties. Sometimes, trees serve as a sentimental function reminding us of a family member or vacation memories. Providing habitat or a food source, for our native fauna, is often a highly desired function of a tree.
- How much room is available for a tree and its growth over a lifetime? Consider the tree and its size at maturity. The size of the planting area is critical when choosing a tree species. Available space includes both growth for height, growth for width, and growth underground for roots. Any space smaller than 4 ft. wide cannot support a tree of any size. Take note of nearby structures (houses, fences, other large plants) and adjacent thoroughfares. Be aware of overhead utility lines; don’t plant large canopy trees, or trees reaching heights over 20 ft. in proximity or under them. Be aware of underground utilities, water mains, and other underground infrastructure. Intensive breeding programs have led to developing tree cultivars that express characteristics more cooperative with the restrictions we face in our urban neighborhoods. Knowing the maximum height and width available for canopy growth will help in selecting a tree that will not cause conflict in the future.
- How much sun/shade does the tree species require or how much sun/shade does the area for planting receive? Tree species each have their own tolerances to sunlight conditions. Trees adjacent to other trees or situated close to homes often have limited exposure to sunlight. It is never a waste of time, for a full day, to observe the area where the tree is to be planted and make notice of the hours of sunlight. Shadier conditions can inadvertently lead to reduced blooms and thinner canopies while intense sun exposure can inadvertently lead to scorched leaf margins or split bark.
- What sort of soil drainage is present? Most tree death is water-stress related, whether it is excess water or a deficit of water. After hard or prolonged rains or after snowmelt, observe the potential planting site and make notice if the area holds water or drains readily. If it does hold water, for how long does it take before the soil is no longer saturated? Tree species each have their own tolerances to prolonged flooding and/or drought conditions. Avoid planting moisture-dependent species in dry areas, and vice versa.
- Variety is the spice of life. Do not forget about the importance of diversity, both in tree species and in tree age. Always plant more than one species of tree; filling a yard with the same species is very problematic when they are prone to pests and diseases (ex. Dutch elm disease and Emerald Ash borer.) Long-term sustainment of canopy cover or of the intended tree functions, in the landscape, is achievable if planting is staggered over time. Planting trees all in the same year can create an inadvertent result of great loss, over a short period of time. When planted at the same time, trees grow old together, which would be good for a while, but then they may begin to die around the same time creating a large loss in canopy coverage or function in a relatively short period of time. This effect is dependent on the anticipated tree mortality but can be avoided when planned appropriately.
So many trees are removed because they started off in the wrong place or the place did not suit the tree species’ needs. Time invested toward tree species and site selection will ensure the tree will bring enjoyment and purpose for years to come.