In his novel Dombey and Son, Charles Dickens famously wrote: “Train up a fig tree in the way it should go, and when you are old sit under the shade of it.”
I always joke that when you plant a tree, it’s for the next owner of your home to enjoy. But while it does indeed take a decade or more for trees to mature, even saplings slightly improve soil, air, and storm runoff. And besides, the sooner you plant a tree, the sooner you’ll see its benefits, which are many.
Aside from a mature tree’s beauty and stately grace, who doesn’t love the blazing autumn foliage of maples, oaks, dogwoods, beech, birch, and sycamores? Trees are fantastic as privacy screens and much more interesting and beneficial than a boring old fence. They support native wildlife like birds, bees, and butterflies, and their roots attract beneficial microbes and fungi to the soil. Trees are also very effective as windbreaks to protect your home and open areas. Deciduous varieties – trees which lose their foliage in winter – planted on south-facing lawns will cool your home in summer and warm it in winter, and some have unique bark to perk up your winter landscape. A mature tree’s root system and canopy will absorb as much as 1500 gallons of rainfall each year, which cuts down on soil erosion and storm runoff. Trees also have the unique ability to clean soil by pulling toxic chemicals up and storing them, sometimes changing the toxin to a less problematic form.
What’s the best tree for your landscape?
The varieties of trees are endless: American Beech, River Birch, Sugar Maple, Oak, Mesquite, Juniper, Dogwood. Ash, Buckeye, Redbud, Hickory, Willow, Japanese Maple. Acacia, Spruce, Cypress, Weeping Cherry, Cottonwood. Cedar, Sumac, Hackberry, Magnolia, Chokecherry, Fir, Carolina Silverbell. There may be hundreds of appropriate trees for your space, so you need to narrow things down a bit.
- How large a tree do I need (height and width)?
- How far from the house will I plant it?
- Are there any obstructions which will prevent the tree from growing to its mature height? (check the plant tag for mature height and width)
- Which trees are native to my area?
- Am I planting it for fall color, spring flowering, landscape protection, wind break, interesting bark, or shade?
Native trees are an important consideration, as they’re adapted to your regions’ soil type and weather. They’re much more likely to survive weather extremes like hurricanes, heat wave, and drought, than non-native species. They also will do more to support wildlife than non-natives.
To discover which trees are best for your landscape, check the website of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which has an amazing list of native species of all types.
Fall is the best season to plant a tree, as cool air temperatures and warm soil encourage root growth. When planted in spring, early heat waves can limit growth and stress a sapling.
- Dig a hole three times as wide, but only as deep as the rootball. New research shows that most root activity takes place near the surface, but extends far beyond the tree’s dripline, making deep holes unnecessary.
- Position the tree in the hole so the flare (where the tree meets the roots) is 1-2 inches above the soil line. If the tree is grafted (such as apple trees), position the graft 3-4 inches above the soil line.
- Backfill the hole halfway with a mixture of the original soil and 1/3rd finished, organic compost. Water deeply and let drain. Tamp down the soil with your hand to squeeze out any air pockets. Repeat until filled.
- No fertilizer is needed, as the organic compost will provide plenty of nutrients.
- Around the outside edge of the hole, create a one-inch sink to capture rainwater for the first month, a critical period while the tree establishes new roots.
- Water daily for the first month in the absence of rainfall. The soil around the roots needs to remain damp during this period.
- After thirty days, fill in the sink.
- Once a year, mulch with compost, but keep it a few inches away from the trunk.
Tip: Do not stake a newly planted tree. The tension on the tree created by wind makes it stronger and helps it to develop deeper root growth.