Putting Down Roots
How to add a tree to your yard—the right way.
There's nothing you can add to your yard that improves it as much as a tree does. On the practical side, a tree can provide shade, block harsh winds and even muffle the noise of a busy street.
On the esthetic front, a tree is a continual source of beauty and enjoyment as it grows over the years and changes throughout the seasons. A tree can also add value to your home.
It's not difficult to achieve all of these goals — if you're armed with a little knowledge about choosing the best site in your yard, buying the right tree and planting it correctly. You'll find that knowledge on the following three pages along with lists of our favorite shade trees and small trees.
Goldenrain trees make good patio, lawn, or street trees. They tolerate poor soil conditions, heat, and drought.
Choosing a Location
If you know where you want to plant a tree, then you need to look for a species that you like, that will grow well in the soil and sun at the site and that will not outgrow the location over its lifetime. Finding a tree that will flourish in your yard is fairly simple — nurseries and the local extension service will provide you with a list of appropriate trees. But you still have to consider a tree's size and habits. For example, large shade trees, such as European beech or white oak, are great at bringing relief from summer heat. They shouldn't, however, be planted next to a swimming pool, where they'll create extra work for you by dropping their leaves into the water.
Other considerations include the tree's root system (surface roots can wreck a lawn and lift concrete), maintenance needs (some trees require lots of pruning or raking) and resistance to insects and diseases.
As you look at different trees, you may change your mind on where you want to plant. Keep these other considerations in mind before you start digging:
- Plant a large tree at least 20 feet away from the house. Place a small tree at least 8 feet away.
- Avoid planting a tree where it will overhang your house, block a door, or obstruct a desirable view from indoors.
- Don't plant a tree that will exceed a height of 25 feet underneath overhead power lines.
- Don't dig above underground utility lines. For help in locating electric, cable, phone and water lines on your property, contact each of your utility companies directly.
- Plant where roots have ample room to grow. Be cautious of sewer and drain lines (roots can puncture them), paved surfaces (they will buckle) and even areas of lawn (surface roots steal water and make mowing a nightmare).
- Consider visibility. Place a tree with low-growing branches far from the corner of a block so it doesn't block the vision of motorists who stop at the intersection.
- Be a good neighbor. Don't plant a tree directly on or near your property line.
Placed too close to the house, this coast redwood — working its way to 90 feet tall — blocks windows, overhangs the roof, and makes some maintenance jobs difficult.
Purchasing the Tree
The right tree. A tree is a lifetime investment, so don't buy strictly on price. And put some thought into where you buy. Staff members at a quality nursery or garden center know trees, sell the best varieties and offer information and assistance you won't get at most mass-market outlets. They will know what soil and sun conditions each species requires and how tall it will grow, and can describe its flowers and leaves in each season for any tree they sell. The trees they have on hand should be robust and in good health; also make sure they're labeled with their common and botanical names and price.
Most nurseries also provide valuable services. Many guarantee the health of a tree for a year. Delivery is usually available for an extra charge, and some nurseries will even plant the tree for you. Figure labor at about 50 percent of the cost of the tree.
Your options. Trees are sold two ways at this time of year: Balled-and-burlapped (often abbreviated as B&B by nurseries) and, most commonly, in containers. A balled-and-burlapped tree is dug from a nursery field with a ball of soil around the roots, and the ball is wrapped in burlap and tied. A tree in a container might have been grown in that container or transplanted from a nursery field into the pot when close to sellable size.
Although prices are comparable, a tree in a container with a soilless growing medium (usually sand and bark) weighs less and is easier to handle than a balled-and- burlapped tree, which typically weigh 100 lbs. per cubic foot of root ball.
Regardless of how the tree was grown, keep in mind that bigger is not always better. Research shows that a smaller tree suffers less transplant stress and grows more quickly after transplanting than a larger one. What's more, a smaller tree costs less and is easier to maneuver. But it takes time for a small tree to catch up to a larger one. It comes down to the immediate gratification of a large tree versus the cost, vigor and convenience of a small tree.
Make sure it's healthy. Select a tree with evenly spaced branches extending in all directions. The leaves should be even-colored and free of insects and disease. Reject any tree with broken branches, wounds circling the trunk or sap oozing from it.
The root ball should feel moist. Even one or two missed waterings at the nursery can set back or even kill a tree. Check the root system on plants in containers. Circling or kinked roots on the root ball surface indicate serious problems; circling roots can literally strangle the tree in later years.
Ideally, a tree should be able to stand on its own without being tightly staked. Ask a nursery staff member to untie a staked tree; if the tree bends at a sharp angle away from the stake, don't buy it.
Caring for the Tree
On the way home. Once you've purchased your tree, protect it while transporting it home. Lift and carry it from underneath the root ball or container, not by the trunk. If the tree is being transported in the open air, wrap its top in burlap or a similar material. This protects the plant from wind that can shred and dehydrate the leaves.
Follow-up care. Keep the soil moist, not soaked, around a newly planted tree. The root ball could dry out in a day or two, especially in hot summer weather. Once established, a tree needs about 1 inch of water a week through the growing season, whether from rainfall or irrigation.
Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch at the base of the tree, keeping it away from the trunk. Mulch conserves moisture, protects against soil temperature extremes and reduces competition from weeds. It also prevents lawnmower damage to the trunk.
Stake the tree, but only if necessary. Studies show that a tree establishes more quickly and is stronger if it's not staked. Only a top-heavy tree or one in a windy site should be staked to prevent it from toppling over.
If stakes must be used, choose plastic or nylon strapping to protect the bark. (The familiar wire sheathed with garden hose damages trees.) Also, allow trees a slight amount of flex, rather than holding them rigidly in place. Remove all staking materials after one year to prevent them from girdling the trunk.
Take good care of your young tree, and it will pay you back many times over, and sooner than you think. In fact, money does grow on trees — the right tree, in the right place, planted the right way.
Planting a Tree the Right Way
Nothing too complicated about planting a tree, right? Right, except the way you probably learned to do it won't do the tree any favors. What once seemed to make good sense — digging a deep hole, for instance — doesn't really hold true. Here's what research has taught us.
- Begin by digging a hole as deep as the root ball and two to four times its width. (In heavy clay soil, make the hole 1 or 2 inches shallower than the root ball.) Widen the hole near the soil surface and then dig around the bottom of the hole to create a pedestal of undug soil. The solid pedestal supports the tree at the proper depth and keeps it from settling.
- Remove the tree from its container and brush the soil off the outer few inches of the root ball. Cut off any circling roots on the outside of the root ball close to the tree base. Tease or pry apart matted roots to encourage them to grow outward. For a balled-and-burlapped tree, remove pinning nails, wire basket, rope and synthetic or treated burlap (leave natural burlap in place).
- Set the tree in the hole on the pedestal. Roll back any burlap that's still in place and trim away as much as you can. Backfill the hole halfway with soil excavated from the hole. Don't mix organic matter like peat moss into the backfill soil. Amendments change the soil texture in the planting hole, which inhibits water movement and root growth into the surrounding soil. Water the soil in the partially filled hole thoroughly to rehydrate the soil and root ball and to settle out air pockets that can cause roots to dry out.
- Finish backfilling the hole. Don't cover the top of the root ball with soil because this can prevent water from reaching the roots. Water the tree and remove tags and labels from the branches to prevent girdling. Finish off with mulch at the base of the tree, keeping it away from the trunk.
Favorite Small Trees. The roots on the following small trees (which typically grow 15 to 30 feet high) won't crack pavement. All are candidates for small yards, and the ones that drop very little litter can also be used successfully near patios.
- Japanese maple (Acer palmatum)
- Serviceberry (Amelanchier species)
- Redbud (Cercis species)
- Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)
- Hawthorns (Crataegus species)
- Silver bell (Halesia carolina)
- Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)
- Goldenrain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata)
- Saucer magnolia (Magnolia soulangiana)
- Flowering crab apples (Malus species)
- Flowering fruit (Prunus species)
Favorite Shade Trees. The following deciduous trees shade the house in summer and lose their leaves in winter, allowing the sun to warm the house.
- Red maple (Acer rubrum)
- Horsechestnut (Aesculus species)
- Sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
- Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)
- Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis)
- Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana)
- White oak (Quercus alba)
- Red oak (Quercus rubra)
- American linden (Tilia americana)
- Sawleaf zelkova (Zelkova serrata)