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Graceful, delicate branches combined with small leaves and peeling bark (on some species) make sure that birch trees amp up a landscape’s appeal. They’re especially dramatic when planted as an allee (in rows on either side of a path), in a grove, or near water where their impact is doubled in reflection. As medium to large trees, members of the birch family can be incorporated into large suburban residential landscapes with relative ease. Many native species provide welcome habitat for local wildlife. Birch trees generally thrive in moist, well-drained soil and cool, moderate climates. They struggle to survive in hot, dry regions.
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Using Birch in the Landscape
Deciduous birch trees take on striking gold and yellow fall color. Pair them with evergreen trees, such as Norway spruce or white pine, to highlight their intense yellow fall color. Stage a brilliant leaf show by planting birch alongside trees that sport red and orange fall foliage. Sugar maple, ornamental pear tree, and serviceberry are a few easy-to-grow trees that thrive alongside birch and provide bright, flashy fall color.
Caring For Birch Trees
Birch grows well in full sun or part shade and moist, well-drained soil. That is, as long as the shallow root system—which is sensitive to heat and drought—gets the shade it needs to thrive. Some varieties grow well in boggy or wet soil, so check with the nursery when you pick out your specimen(s). Plant container-growing or balled-and-burlapped trees in spring. Spread a 2-inch-thick layer of mulch over the newly planted tree's root zone to keep the roots cool, prevent soil-moisture loss, and limit weed growth. Water newly planted trees regularly and deeply during the first growing season. Aim to provide trees with 1 inch of water per week. Continue watering every couple of weeks during the second growing season to encourage plants to develop a strong, deep root system.
Prune birch as needed in winter to maintain desired size and shape. Prune away broken, crossing, or rubbing branches as soon as they are noticed. Many species of birch are susceptible to bronze birch borer, which can kill trees in two to three years. This destructive insect pest invades stressed birch trees that are struggling to grow in poorly drained soil or hot, dry conditions. Prevent a bronze birch borer attack by selecting a variety that is resistant to bronze birch borer and planting it in a cool, moist, shaded location. A healthy, thriving tree has a better chance of fending off a pest attack.
New Types of Birch
Plant breeders are developing smaller selections of birch trees. Small varieties—river birch in particular—make it possible to enjoy their graceful habit and fall color in urban and small landscapes. Look for 'Summer Cascade', 'Shiloh Splash', and 'Fox Valley' varieties of river birch at your local garden center. These plants grow 6 to 12 feet tall and wide and feature peeling bark.