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Selecting new trees, maintaining existing trees

Yards to Paradise Landscaping Column by Max Phelps

It’s not unusual to buy a new home with no trees, as it’s quite rare for real estate developers to save good quality trees and build around them in a development. Perhaps if you owned the lot and hired your builder, you got to do it more to your liking. And many a homeowner buys a place with more mature trees that have been planted by a former owner, and wonders if they should be kept and how would they know how to care for them.

Let’s take a moment to look at these situations and see if we can come away with more confidence in selecting and maintaining trees in our landscapes.

If you have the luxury of having a wooded property that you plan to build a home on, you have choices to make. Which trees will need to go, and which can stay? There is not one perfect answer, of course. (Just don’t do like a neighbor of mine who cleared a tract and removed a native, natural-occurring pink dogwood that would have been 20 feet from the spot he chose for building. That was a bad selection of what needed to go or stay.)

For those with a house having few or no trees, you have the luxury of choosing what you would like. What are your favorite trees? Will they look good with this home? And will they grow well under the conditions that are present? It is still not as simple as going shopping for the trees you happen to like and planting them.

Right tree, right spot. That is a good rule to follow. If your yard has bedrock or compacted clay soil just under the surface, will the tree you prefer do well in that spot? If the spot you need a tree stays wet all the time, do you go ahead and plant a tree that needs good drainage? Does your favorite tree need some shade; and if so, do you plan to put it in the front yard in full sun? Sometimes you need to think natives, or at least think what would do best in my spot—not go with the tree with pretty blooms or because you had one where you lived as a child.

When selecting trees, consider the various pros and cons, and be willing to consider trees you’d not thought of or haven’t seen in other people’s yards. Let your spot, including location and soil and mature size help choose what would work well. Try to avoid impulse decisions, and get professional advice if you need to.

The homeowner who wants a lovely dogwood might ought to consider putting it on the shady side of the home away from midday sun. The one who wants an oak tree might want to consider the acorns, the roots, and how much space it will take up 40 years from now. The folks who live by a busy street that gets treated by salt trucks several times every winter when it snows might ought to ask the nursery some questions, such as “what is the salt tolerance of this plant” if they want to plant it near the street, or where highway runoff will be flowing across their property.

As real estate changes hands, so do the trees and other amenities. Often a new homeowner will have no idea if a tree is healthy, if it presents a hazard in a windstorm, or should they accept and love it even if not one of their favorites.

Quickly, some trees with disease or fungus issues that perhaps you should avoid, would include: Ash trees, walnut trees, native dogwoods, hemlocks, to name a few. But what if you have these trees and they are healthy?

Usually I would advise to keep a watch and be prepared to treat with a spray or systemic at the first sign of trouble. But, if you have badly diseased trees, prompt removal may be the best—with selection of something different and tough and disease resistant.

Problem soils, wet or rocky or dry locations, are all problems that can probably be solved with some good soil trucked in and plant in that.

Smaller trees, containerized trees, even little ones dug from the forest or fallow field often perform better than balled and burlapped large trees. Unless you’re the impatient type, or have a terminal illness and want to enjoy trees right away, planting smaller sizes will be way cheaper, and within 5 or 10 years will probably catch and pass the growth of the bigger trees.

Landscapers and nurserymen may try to sell you on the instant gratification. In practice, if a customer has me designing a landscape on a fairly small budget…I will often recommend one big, pretty tree, plus several much smaller ones. That way they get one lovely bit of instant shade or screening, and wait on the others to fill in, saving many dollars in the process.

Before you make decisions on existing trees, get to know what species it is. Learn if it’s a good tree to have, or if it was a bad choice from the get-go. And, don’t go cutting down or topping trees without seeking expert opinions. Topping is a very poor tree care practice, generally speaking. Removing a few select limbs and bringing shapes back into control would be preferred if a tree needs work.

When the desire for a problem tree wins out, due to sentimental factors or personal preferences, it’s not the end of the world. Just find an appropriate place, plant with care, and give it a bit of TLC and hope for the best.

So many things can go into having a pretty landscape. If you have lovely trees, take good care not to harm them. And if you are in need of trees, or simply want some for shade, screening, attractive appearance, or whatever, carefully consider size and shape, how will it grow in your poor (or rich) soil, and will it look good in relation to the home and other elements both now, as well as many years from now, as it becomes a big tree?

Choose smartly, and select for diversity rather than what everybody else has in their yards.

Plant and maintain trees for a more valuable and more useful property. Only one special or specimen tree is needed, it will show off better (and you’ll save money also) if the other trees and shrubs are ordinary in appearance. As with most things, some forethought before acting is the better course of action.

The author is a landscaper. Feedback welcomed. Visit www.rockcastles.net