If you’re looking for an eco-friendly way to add character and value to your home and reduce energy costs, you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck by planting trees. Besides the obvious aesthetic benefits, trees act as low-maintenance privacy screens, provide shade, generate oxygen and offer homes for all kinds of interesting wildlife.
Though planting a tree is simple, several factors contribute to its long-term success. Follow these tips to choose, plant and preserve a tree that will thrive in your yard for many years to come.
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Planning to plant a tree
In most regions, spring is the best time to plant a tree because of the season’s mild temperatures and moderate precipitation. Planting in spring allows the tree to become acclimated to its new environment before it faces extreme weather conditions.
Begin by determining what type of tree is best suited for your yard. This depends largely on your climate. Consult a local nursery or check out the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map (see WEB EXTRAS) to find out what kind of trees will thrive in your zone. Then consider whether your potential planting site is shaded or gets direct sunlight, and narrow your choices to trees that can survive in those conditions.
Space is another essential consideration. Rather than extending deep into the earth, tree roots tend to spread in a shallow, horizontal formation (see illustration), often requiring an area that’s one to three times the height of the mature tree. The location where you choose to plant should be free of underground utilities, aboveground power lines and other obstacles that could cause problems in the future. (Remember to call 811 to have underground utilities marked before you dig.)
Planting trees in specific locations can help to reduce heating and cooling costs. You might want to try these energy-saving strategies:
• During winter months, evergreen trees planted along the northern and northwestern exposures of a home can help to block frigid winds, resulting in lower heating bills. For maximum benefit, the U.S. Department of Energy recommends planting windbreaks at a distance from your home that is two to five times the mature height of the trees.
• During the summer, a deciduous tree (one that sheds its leaves in the fall) planted along the southeast exposure of a home can provide morning shade; the same type of tree along the southwest exposure can offer afternoon shade. According to American Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization, effective shade placement can lower air-conditioning costs between 10 percent and 50 percent. As a bonus, deciduous trees also allow the sun to warm a home during the winter after the leaves have fallen.
• The U.S. Department of Energy recommends shading your air conditioning unit and says that doing so can increase efficiency by as much as 10 percent.
As you plan, consider how much yard work you’re willing to do. If you loathe raking, a deciduous tree may not be the best choice. Likewise, flowering and fruit-bearing trees require ground cleanup throughout the year. And some trees are more susceptible to insects and disease. Be sure to weigh all of the pros and cons as well as aesthetic factors including shape, color and texture in making your selection.
When you’re ready to buy a tree, inspect it at the nursery to make sure it’s healthy. Check that the tree has a firm root ball that is adequate for the size of the tree; the roots should not be circling the base of the trunk. It should have a strong leader, or main stem, with a good trunk taper. Branches should be smaller than the trunk and spaced appropriately for the type of tree. (Consult a nursery professional if you need help with your inspection.)
Digging the hole and planting the tree
Once you’ve selected a tree, it’s time to get your hands dirty. First, mark the center of your planting location with a stake; then use spray landscape chalk or the blade of a shovel to mark a circle around the stake that is approximately two to three times the diameter of the tree’s root ball.
Remove the sod within the circle and dig until the depth of the hole measures just a couple of inches less than the height of the root ball. It is imperative that the tree’s trunk flare (the transition between the main stem and the root system) remains exposed after the ground settles so that water and oxygen reach the top of the roots. If the trunk flare becomes buried, the tree will not survive. You may even need to dig down in the root ball to uncover your tree’s trunk flare. Note: If your soil contains large amounts of clay, you’ll need to safeguard against glazing, which occurs when the smooth sides and bottom of the hole form a barrier that is difficult for water to pass through. To prevent glazing, score the sides and bottom of the finished hole with a shovel.
Always handle the tree by the burlap-covered ball, not the trunk, to avoid breaking any roots. Carefully position the tree in the center of the hole and cut back the burlap and any wire or twine surrounding the ball. Fill the hole with water before you start backfilling to ensure that all of the roots get a healthy drink. Next, fill the hole with the displaced dirt, working it into crevices with your shovel. Tip: Bury the end of a garden hose a few inches into the berm to help more water reach the roots.
Caring for the tree
Once the tree is in the ground, you may need to stabilize it with stakes and cords. Thread the cords through small sections of foam or an old garden hose at the points that touch the tree. To prevent weed growth and help retain moisture, cover the berm with a 2- to 3-in.-thick layer of mulch, keeping it 6 in. or so away from the trunk. After the first day, water the tree generously about once a week. As the season progresses you can water less frequently, but be aware of dry spells and water as needed.
You probably won’t need to prune a newly planted tree until the following year. In general, you should prune a little each year between late winter and early spring before the leaves appear, although some species such as birch and maple should be pruned in late summer to prevent bleeding. (Check with your local nursery for specific pruning recommendations.)
When you’re ready to start trimming, first cut all dead branches and suckers (small, fast-growing shoots) flush with the branch that they sprouted from. Next, check whether any leader branches fork narrowly, which can cause a weak crotch as the tree grows larger. If so, remove one side of the fork. Follow that up by eliminating any branches that grow inward or rub against others, small branches that crowd larger ones or any branches that are too low on the trunk. You’ll also want to remove problem branches such as those that could interfere with power lines or buildings. Don’t try to prune everything at once; spread the process over several years.
The proper way to prune is to make slightly angled cuts with sharp pruners, leaving about 1/4 in. of the branch. This allows the area to heal without compromising the strength of any adjoining branches. As the tree ages, you may need to prune larger pieces using a handsaw or chain saw. Consult a professional for help cutting branches that are extremely high or large.