Trees For Every Purpose

Plant the right variety for your conditions now and enjoy the benefits for years to come.

By Therese Ciesinski

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The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now. - Chinese proverb

Add beauty and value to your home, provide essential food and shelter for wildlife, and help reduce carbon in the atmosphere in one simple step: planting a tree. And right now, autumn, is the time to plant because warm soil coaxes new growth from roots, while cool nights and rainy skies minimize evaporation and water stress.

But among the countless types of trees to choose from, which is best for you? We asked six experts-arborists, horticulturists, and garden designers from around the country—to recommend trees for your sites and situations.

How to Plant a Tree Right
1. Dig a hole two to three times as wide as the rootball, but the same depth as the rootball. Save the soil.

2. Fill the hole with water and let it drain.

3. Place the tree in the hole so that its flare (the wide point where the trunk ends and the roots begin) is 1 or 2 inches above the surface of the soil.

4. Backfill the hole with the soil you saved. When it's half filled, water the soil to settle it.

5. Continue filling the hole to the top. Tamp the soil to eliminate large air pockets, but don't compact it.

6. Mulch with 1 or 2 inches of organic matter, no more. Don't allow the mulch to touch the trunk of the tree.

3 Tree-Planting Myths
When it comes tree planting, research and scientific experimentation have refuted some commonly held beliefs. Here are three:

1. Planting too deep Old thinking: Roots grow a few feet down into the ground, so dig a deep hole to give the roots running room. New knowledge: Roots grow mainly in the top foot of soil but extend out far past the canopy. Dig the hole only as deep as the rootball, but make it at least twice as wide.

2. Staking Old thinking: Every newly planted tree must be staked, or the first storm will topple it. New knowledge: A deciduous tree with a well-developed root system (and you should never buy any other kind) doesn't need staking.

3. Pruning Old thinking: Prune back some of the topgrowth to compensate for the smaller root system on a nursery-grown plant. New knowledge: Just-planted trees need every leaf, or they won't produce enough food to allow for healthy growth.

Newbie hint When a newly planted tree dies, it's almost always for one simple reason: not enough water. Inadequate water results in smaller and fewer leaves, and fewer flowers and fruits. A Spanish study found that cutting back available water by only 15 percent reduced the acorn production of established oak trees by 45 percent. During the growing seasons, water your tree at least once a week for one year after planting, and up to two years in drought conditions.

Master's tip Get rid of the grass before planting your tree, say researchers at Kansas State University. In field trials, growth of eastern redbud planted into grassy turf actually ceased, while those planted in either no-turf plots or organic mulch had twice the trunk diameter of the turf-grown trees. Researchers speculate that the grass not only competes with the tree for water and nutrients but also produces an allelopathic effect: Chemicals released by the grasses inhibit the tree's growth.

For a Small Space
Consider this: If there's room for only one or two trees into your yard, they need to work hard: "I look for added value: Does the tree attract birds or butterflies? Does it have three- or four-season interest?" says Melinda Myers.

Try these trees: Most everywhere: dogwoods, crabapples, serviceberries. South: chaste tree (Vitex), crape myrtle, goldenrain tree. Southwest: aspen, Bosnian pine, crabapples (upright forms like 'Adirondack', 'Red Barron', and 'Sentinel'). Midwest: sumacs, dwarf hackberries, snowbells (Styrax). Upper Midwest: Japanese tree lilac. Northeast: stewartias, fastigiate beech. Northwest: star or lily magnolia, or one of the Little Girl magnolia hybrids-'Susan', 'Jane', 'Betty', etc. Also Japanese snowbell.

Good to know: Choose trees with multiple trunks, such as river birch, redbud, and crape myrtle, and it will look like there are more trees in the space.

To Shade a Patio or Deck
Consider this: "[Look for] a tree that causes no messy litter problems, won't outgrow the location, won't develop hazardous thorns, and is attractive up close," Guy Sternberg advises.

Try these trees: Most everywhere: maples, honeylocusts, stewartias. South: trident maple, Japanese maple. Southwest: Shirofugen or 'Cascade Snow' cherries, Texas red oak, 'Allee' lacebark elm. Midwest: hornbeams, redbuds, silverbells (Halesia). Upper Midwest: Kentucky coffeetree, "for its bold texture." American and silver lindens "are drought-tolerant with fragrant flowers that attract bees." Northeast: river birch, Japanese tree lilac-"especially 'China Snow'. It's delicate, with gorgeous bark." Japanese stewartias "flower for weeks." Northwest: a small southern magnolia, one with "fragrant blossoms and shade from the dense canopy." Try 'Victoria', 'Edith Bogue', or 'Little Gem'.

Good to know: Avoid evergreens; their shade is dank and won't be as comfortable to sit under as a deciduous tree's.

To Shade a Patio or Deck
Consider this: Plant an understory species-a tree 30 feet tall or less that naturally grows beneath the big guys in the forest, and so is accustomed to less light.

Try these trees: Most everywhere: dogwoods, redbuds, hornbeams. South: sourwood, fringetree. Southwest: aspens, 'Autumn Brilliance' serviceberry, fastigiate Norway spruce. Midwest: stewartias, silverbells. Upper Midwest: ironwood (Carpinus), "a good multiseason tree, great bark, slow-growing, airy branch structure, good fall color"; or pagoda dogwood. Northeast: Japanese maples. Northwest: Japanese and full moon maples.

Good to know: All shade is not equal. Some shady sites are dry and some moist. Be sure your tree selection tolerates the site conditions you have, Alan Haywood advises.

For Multiseason Interest
Consider this: "You want trees with good flowers, fruit display, and bark, but also consider more subtle things such as aesthetic growth habit, wildlife appeal, and fragrance," Sternberg says.

Try these trees: Most everywhere: dogwoods, redbuds, hawthorns, and birches. South: crape myrtles. Southwest: alligator juniper, cockspur hawthorn ("nice fall color plus wonderful thorns and twigs in winter"), Japanese red pines ("lovely needles, great bark"). Midwest: Sassafras, oaks, and hickories. Upper Midwest: serviceberries "good bird food." Northeast: Japanese stewartia, katsura ("Love the bark, the flowers and the great structure"). Northwest: Paperbark maple ("peeling, cinnamon colored bark provides year-round interest, with red fall color an added bonus").

Good to know: Don't overlook the value of branching patterns. Deciduous trees vary a great deal in how they branch. Dense, twiggy branching isn't as pleasing to the eye as layered, open branching habits, Alan Haywood says.

To Create Privacy
Consider this: "The best screen planting does not scream out, 'I'm planted in a row to hide something!'" Sternberg says.

Try these trees: Most everywhere: hollies, hawthorns. South: hollies such as 'Nellie R. Stevens', 'Burford', 'Fosteri'; dwarf magnolia 'Little Gem', cherry laurel. Southwest: Arizona cypress, New Mexico privet (Forestiera), pinyon pine. Midwest: marcescent oaks such as blackjack or white oak, and bumelia. Upper Midwest: hedge maple, amur chokecherry. Northeast: American holly or blue holly; chamaecyperis. Northwest: "Columnar hornbeam is a deciduous screening tree with dense foliage and a low branching habit. A good evergreen is incense cedar; it has a narrow spread compared to its height."

Good to know: If you're using slower-growing trees, underplant with broadleaf evergreen or deciduous shrubs such as viburnums, photinia, rhododenrons, or hollies to fill in the space while the trees mature.

To Stay Clear of Power Lines
Consider this: You need a tree that doesn't grow more than approximately 25 feet tall, or the utility company will either cut it down or butcher it beyond recognition.

Try these trees: Most everywhere: serviceberries, redbuds, hawthorns. South: Kousa dogwood, sourwood, chaste tree. Southwest: Bosnian pine, crabapples, flowering cherries. Midwest: yellowhorn (Xanthoceras), small maples. Upper Midwest: hawthorns ("Cockspur, 'Winter King', or 'Washington,' all have great fall color, and fruit for the birds"). Northeast: American smoketree, fringetree (Chionanthus). Northwest: crabapples, Japanese maples, golden chain tree.

Good to know: Besides using trees of appropriate height, try to attract attention to the landscape below and away from the utility lines and supports, Sternberg suggests. "Use larger trees up close to provide a visual roof that blocks the line of sight to the poles and conductors."

To Quickly Fill a Treeless Landscape
Consider this: "Plant some fast-growing things for instant gratification, but plant slow-growing things for the long term. It increases your property values," Myers says.

Try these trees: Most anywhere: oaks and maples. South: willow oak, shumard oak, red maple. Southwest: "For quick effect, crabapples (showy at a young age), elms, and honeylocusts. For the long term: alligator juniper, Bosnian pine, goldenrain tree." Midwest: aspens, sumacs, and sycamore. Upper Midwest: Freeman maple "is a fast grower with good fall color." Alders, red and pin oaks. Northeast: "Plant some fast growers that can get to 40 or 50 feet, such as autumn blaze maple or red maple." Northwest: "Plant a fast-growing tree that gives some scale to the house as soon as possible. A London plane tree or a tulip tree, if it fits in the yard. For smaller yards, a red maple or katsura."

Good to know: Avoid planting silver maple and most poplars, Myers says. "They grow fast and die young unless properly pruned throughout their lifetime."

For a big impact
Consider this: "Be sure the site has adequate space for the mature tree, and don't plant any tree too close to a building, walkway, or driveway," Gary Peiffer cautions.

Try these trees: Most anywhere: oaks and beeches. South: white oak or live oak, "for their size, grandeur of spread, and longevity." Southwest: Ponderosa pine. Upper Midwest: beeches, "for their height, color, and leaves in winter." Bur oak. Northeast: American beech. "Their bark is like skin. Plant one for posterity." Scarlet, red, pin, or white oak. "Oaks make a place feel like home." Northwest: giant sequoia ("large and stately with a regular, conical shape that is impressive in a landscape setting"). European beech; catalpa ("Large leaves give it an almost tropical appearance, with spring flowers and long, bean pod-like fruit adding seasonal interest").

Good to know: Big trees usually grow slowly-only inches a year-but that means their wood is dense and strong, and can hold up to rough weather.

Our Tree Experts
Northeast: Penelope O'Sullivan, landscape designer and author of The Homeowner's Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook (Storey Publishing, 2007), Stratham, New Hampshire

Southeast: Gary Peiffer, extension service horticulture manager, DeKalb County Extension Service, Decatur, Georgia

Midwest: Guy Sternberg, arborist and author of Native Trees for North American Landscapes (Timber Press, 2004), Petersburg, Illinois

Upper Midwest: Melinda Myers, certified arborist and horticulturist, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Southwest: Tracy Neal, horticulturist, Design With Nature, Ltd., Santa Fe, New Mexico

Northwest: Alan Haywood, city arborist and horticulturist for the city of Issaquah, Washington

The Organic Edge
These are just a few of the many benefits trees provide to people and the environment.

  • The net cooling effect of a young, healthy tree is equivalent to 10 room-size air conditioners operating 20 hours a day, according to the USDA.
  • Songbirds, small mammals, and other wildlife depend on trees for food and shelter. "In laboratory research, visual exposure to settings with trees has produced significant recovery from stress within five minutes, as indicated by changes in blood pressure and muscle tension," reports Roger S. Ulrich, Ph.D., of Texas A&M University.
  • "One acre of forest absorbs 6 tons of carbon dioxide and puts out 4 tons of oxygen. This is enough to meet the annual needs of 18 people," says the USDA. A tree doesn't reach its most productive stage of carbon storage for 10 years, so plant one sooner rather than later!
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