All About Trees

Everything you need to know to maintain these gentle giants.


Whether or not to plant a tree is one of the first landscaping decisions you need to make, and one of the most lasting ones, as a tree will stay around to reward or punish you and generations to come. When the appropriate tree is selected and planted in a proper spot, it frames the home and beautifies the landscape, making both more enjoyable. Trees increase the resale value of property, and save energy costs. Plan now, savor later.

Learn more about shrubs that work for your yard, too.

Select the Right Tree

As you consider trees, visualize them at maturity and remember that some trees develop as much width as height if given space. Picture each tree's size and shape in relation to the overall landscape and the size and style of the house. Trees that peak at 40 feet work best beside or behind a one-story home. Taller trees blend with two-story houses and large lots. Smaller trees (under 30 feet at maturity) suit streetside locations, small lots, and intimate areas such as patios.

Choose trees from two general categories that will suit your needs:

  • Deciduous trees include large shade trees that frame areas with a cool summer canopy and a colorful autumn spectacle. Their winter silhouettes provide passages for sunlight. In cold climates, for instance, the tree can shade a southern exposure from summertime heat, then allow winter sunlight to warm the house.
  • Evergreen (coniferous) trees have dense, green foliage that makes them well-suited to group planting for privacy screens, windbreaks, or backdrops for flowering trees and shrubs, yet they are handsome enough to stand alone. They hold their needles to provide year-round shelter and color.

Be sure to include a variety of trees in your landscape to avoid losing much if diseases or pests strike. Buy disease- and pest-resistant cultivars.

Tree-Buying Guide

Every year, a parade of new hybrids and cultivars reaches the market. Typically, local nurseries stock the most popular trees in the vicinity, while mail-order sources offer more variety. Trees are sold in three forms:

Enlarge Image Flowering dogwoods make a greatinvestment, as they providecool shade in the summer.
  • Bare-root trees usually come inexpensively from mail-order nurseries where the lightweight, dormant stock is packed in damp material and easily shipped. Bare-root trees should be planted as soon as they arrive, and should not be allowed to dry out.
  • Container-grown trees resemble potted plants. Local nurseries offer selections throughout the growing season. Plant these trees with the soil they've been growing in to promote quicker establishment with less transplant shock.
  • Balled-and-burlapped trees are dug with a protective root ball of soil, which is then wrapped tightly in cloth or mesh. Buy and plant dormant stock, preferably. If the tree is over 10 or 15 feet tall, have a professional plant it for you.

Consider these tips when inspecting a tree:

  • Look for healthy green leaves (if any), and well-developed top growth. Branches should be unbroken and balanced around the stem. Branches on dormant or bare-root stock should be pliable.
  • Examine the roots, if possible. Healthy roots form a balanced, fully formed mass. Reject trees with broken or dried-out roots.
  • Avoid trees that show signs of disease, pests, or stress (wilting, discolored or misshapen leaves, scarred bark, and nonvigorous growth).
  • Buy trees from a nursery that backs up its reputation with product quality and service integrity.
  • Consider size. Young trees may establish themselves faster than mature trees and have a better rate of success, though larger trees help your landscape seem instantly mature. Most flowering trees grow quickly, so it's OK to start with less expensive, small specimens.

Choosing Where to Plant a Tree

Enlarge Image With proper site selection, a treeshould have plenty of room toreach maturity.

It's fun to pick out a tree you like, but it's tricky to pick out a proper place to put it. Careful planning and positioning of any new addition to your landscape will ensure its success and avoid problems in years to come. As an essential landscape feature, use trees to delineate areas, form a focal point, or reinforce vistas.

An appropriately sited tree has plenty of room to reach maturity and won't interfere with overhead utility lines, underground pipes and utility lines, street traffic, lighting, or parking. Avoid planting under utility lines. If you must, choose low-growing varieties that will reach no closer than 10 feet from lines when mature.

Place strong-wooded shade trees at least 50 feet apart and 15 feet away from buildings and utility lines. Add another 10 to 20 feet for soft-wooded trees to move in stormy weather without breaking up. Space small trees at least 10 feet away from buildings and each other.

Locating trees on the east and west sides of a building provides maximum shade. Plan to shade driveways, parking areas, air-conditioning units, and dark-color surfaces such as roofs.

Group trees to increase shade and reduce lawn area. A group of three or more trees including the same species or mixed company can create a special effect. Plant two or more rows of evergreens when creating a windbreak. Be careful not to block the path of winter sun when building visual or noise screens.

Maintaining a New Tree

Enlarge Image Be sure to give a newly planted treeplenty of TLC.

Try not to prune a newly planted tree unless the form needs improving. Prune flowering trees in spring, after blooming, to correct form problems. Crab apple trees, an exception, should be pruned in late winter. Remove diseased or dead branches anytime.

  • Apply fertilizer only if necessary in the second and following growing seasons. Take a soil sample and have it tested before fertilizing.
  • Mulch to conserve moisture, reduce weeds, and eliminate mowing near the tree. Spread wood chips or shredded bark 4 inches deep and as wide as the tree's canopy. Don't mulch poorly drained or oversaturated soils.
  • Wrap tree trunks to help prevent winter damage from weather and varmints. Remove wraps in spring.
  • Stake young trees, especially bare-root trees and evergreens, to give them strength against high winds. Use low stakes and mesh webbing straps (no cord, wire, or hose) to support the tree. Stake loosely and allow the tree to blow. Remove stakes after a year.
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