Besides the obvious functions of aesthetics and shade, mature trees stabilize soil and reduce erosion, increase soil fertility, enhance the land’s ability to store water, provide wildlife habitat, moderate air and soil temperatures, and help to reduce salinization. Trees are therefore essential in protecting our homes and communities. This may seem counterintuitive when so many large trees snap like twigs during a hurricane or other weather event, but bare with me.
“We can thank trees for our life. They evolved an imponderable 370 million years ago and helped create the very air that we breathe by “inhaling” carbon dioxide, acting as carbon sinks, and “exhaling” oxygen…
With the exception of a very few reptiles, trees are the only living organisms with a lifespan greater than that of humans. They are unique inter-generational gifts to pass on to our descendants. Indeed, the oldest living tree has spanned more than 150 human generations.” – United Nations Plant For The Planet The Billion Tree Campaign
1. Trees protect your home by slowing wind speed.
Windbreaks are one of the most essential functions of trees and are key in minimizing damage to our homes from storms.
The function of windbreaks is to slow wind speed. Trees, even one or two, are very effective as windbreaks, but your choice of species and planting location must be considered carefully. A mix of deciduous trees (those that lose their foliage in winter) and evergreens offer the best protection. If only large evergreens are used, they may allow so little wind to pass through that they take on the qualities of a fence – hurricane strength winds have difficulty passing through, and the force uproots the tree. In my neighborhood, Hurricane Sandy took down the biggest trees, and almost all were pines.
Trees should be planted on the leeward side of your home, which is the side which receives the prevailing winds. This will vary depending upon where you live. At my home in northeast Pennsylvania, most of our storms blow from the South or West, as they usually travel up along the coast of the Mid-Atlantic (your classic Nor’easter) or roar in from the Midwest.
When choosing trees to serve as windbreaks, look for species that mature at a few feet over the peak of your house – the mature height of every tree is shown on the plant tag at your local garden center. Plan your windbreak so it is a sufficient distance from buildings to allow the trees to grow without restriction. I can’t tell you how often I see a beautiful tree like a white pine (popular as Christmas trees) planted only ten feet from someone’s front door. It looks beautiful when the tree is a sapling, but becomes a huge problem in twenty years, shading out everything around it, blocking the view, and branches and roots butting up against walls and foundation.
On small properties, Arborvitae may be a better choice for wind protection. Some members of this family of shrubs can grow as tall as trees, from 8-60 feet, but don’t have as wide a profile. Arborvitae provide excellent wind protection, as their foliage runs all the way to ground level, but allows wind to pass through, and they don’t have large limbs which break off and create hazards in storms. Arborvitae also make excellent natural fences.
Always choose species of trees or Arborvitae that are native to your area, as they’re adapted to your local climate and will thrive with little maintenance.
One large tree can lift up to 100 gallons of water out of the ground and discharge it into the air in a day – North Carolina State University, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
2. Trees offer protection against soil erosion and intercept storm water runoff.
Much of the rain that hits a tree collects in the leaf canopy and bark, where it evaporates back into the air, leaving the rest to drip to the soil below. Tree roots typically extend 2-3 times beyond the dripline (the area beyond which no water will drip from foliage), absorbing much of this water. In fact, the crown of a large tree can intercept so much rainfall that in one year more than 1500 gallons will evaporate back into the atmosphere instead of hitting the ground.
If that tree is removed either intentionally or by a storm, the rainwater is free to run across your property, taking with it topsoil and other beneficial organic matter, eventually dumping it all into your local storm sewer or waterways. A properly maintained lawn provides protection from erosion, but little when compared to a tree.
Depending on size and species, a single tree may store 100 gallons or more of water until it reaches its saturation point after one to two inches of rainfall. When multiplied by the number of trees in a community, this interception and redistribution of rainwater can be significant. The slowed water percolates through the soil, finding its way into local aquifers and feeding streams and rivers. Trees also protect your soil from wind erosion – the drying of the soil caused by wind.
“Trees properly placed around buildings can reduce air conditioning needs by 30% and save 20-50 percent in energy used for heating.” – USDA Forest Service
3. Trees moderate surrounding air and soil temperature.
What’s better than cooling off on a hot summer day under the dense shade of a beautiful, old Maple tree?
That cooling effect also extends to the soil around the tree, keeping insects, worms and bio-organisms happy near the surface, instead of driving them deep below to stay cool. These creatures are brilliant at breaking down organic matter, like fallen tree leaves, into elements necessary for plant growth. This benefits the lawn and flowers within the shade of the tree.
For the most effective temperature moderation of your home, plant deciduous trees on the south side of your property. The mature tree will cast a cooling shadow on your house on summer afternoons and the absence of foliage in winter allows the sun to warm the house. Once again, be aware of the mature size of the tree when determining planting distance from walls.
4. Trees clean air and provide oxygen.
Trees act as a giant carbon dioxide (CO2) sponge. They require CO2 to perform photosynthesis, and then give us the byproduct of this process, oxygen. This improves the air quality around your home and in your community and is especially important in cities. “A big tree does 60 to 70 times the pollution removal of a small tree,” says David Nowak, a project leader with the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Syracuse, N.Y. It’s estimated that one mature tree, depending on its type, can annually release enough oxygen for a family of four.
5-8: Additional benefits of planting trees.
- Trees planted along your property line can provide privacy and look a whole lot friendlier than a fence
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that trees can reduce bothersome noise by up to 50% and mask unwanted noises with pleasant, natural sounds
- Trees nurture birds, beneficial insects and other wildlife, providing resting spots during migration, nesting opportunities, and protection from weather extremes
- Trees increase the value of your home, as a well landscaped property is more attractive to buyers than a clear-cut property
These suggestions for planting trees will offer protection from typical storms. However, with hurricane force winds like those from Sandy, anything can happen, and the best planning may be rendered moot. In my area, Hurricane Sandy’s winds came from the North, an odd direction for us in the fall, but this was no normal storm. The largest trees took the brunt of the 75 mph winds, which is why the power outages were so extreme.
With climate change upon us, it’s predicted that storms such as Sandy will become more frequent. The more natural protection you can provide for your home, the safer you’ll be.