There's nothing like a breathtaking autumn to make us notice the trees. And fall is the perfect time to start thinking about adding a tree to your property.
J.D. and I are lucky to have many mature trees on our lot, but that didn't stop us from planting more when we moved in. We added four fruit trees and a Japanese Zelkova for shade on the southwest side of our home. In only its second summer, that shade tree was already a welcome spot of cool for J.D. and the cats.
In most climates, autumn and spring are the best times for planting new trees, but a tree is a lifetime commitment, so don't rush into anything! Do your research now so you're ready for a springtime purchase, or spend the next 10 months watching trees in your neighborhood before picking the one that's right for you.
Why plant a tree?
For a small investment of money and time, a tree provides many long-term benefits, including these cited by the Arbor Day Foundation:
- Property value. Landscaping can add 10-20% more value to a home, especially landscaping that incorporates mature trees. Business areas with trees attract more customers (and they stay longer and spend more money) and apartments with trees have reduced tenant turnover.
- Resale value. A well-chosen tree adds curb appeal and makes the home appear established within its environment. According to the Arbor Day Foundation's research, “83% of realtors believe that mature trees have a ‘strong or moderate impact' on the salability of homes listed for under $150,000; on homes over $250,000, this perception increases to 98%.”
- Energy efficiency. Depending on how your home is situated, trees can be used to provide shade during the heat of summer or protect your home from the blasts of winter wind, cutting cooling and heating costs. According to the U.S. Forest Service, “Trees properly placed around buildings can reduce air conditioning needs by 30 percent and can save 20 — 50 percent in energy used for heating.”
- Beauty. From spring's first blossoms to the vibrant colors of fall, trees usher in the seasons and announce their passing. Even the bare branches and bark of deciduous trees can be stunning against a stark winter landscape or dusted with snow.
- Good for the planet. Trees do more than look good. As every second-grader knows, a tree absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen, helping to reduce the impacts of fossil fuel use and keep the planet in balance. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that “the net cooling effect of a young, healthy tree is equivalent to ten room-size air conditioners operating 20 hours a day.” Trees also reduce soil erosion and storm runoff.
- Good for your mood. Research indicates that communities with more trees report lower crime rates and lower levels of anxiety. In one study from Texas A&M University, looking at trees reduced stress within five minutes, as indicated by changes in blood pressure and muscle tension. Add a hammock and you can probably cut that to two minutes!
- Good for your wallet. Reduce your grocery bills by planting trees and bushes that produce food for your family. Dwarf selections of fruit and nut trees are beautiful and productive.
- Privacy. Well-placed trees can screen a house from a busy road or a noisy neighbor. We are fortunate to have mature trees on all four sides of our property, creating a park-like setting in which street noise and the visual impact of other houses are minimized.
- Company. Native trees provide berries, seeds, fruits or nuts for local birds and critters. Even non-native tree species may serve as nesting sites or feeding stations for wildlife.
- Community. Planting a tree to commemorate a birth or death is a meaningful way to connect our humanity with our environment and the future. If you don't have room in your own yard, consider arranging a tree-planting at a senior home, school, or community center as a way to honor someone in your life.
What kind of tree should you plant?
Now that you're convinced, here's the fun part: choosing your tree.
This is the most crucial step. Putting the wrong tree in the wrong place spells trouble down the road for you, your neighbors, or future owners. I frequently see housing developments built during the early nineties that are planted with ill-chosen trees.
Often, new homes are sold with no backyard landscaping and merely grass and a few ornamental shrubs in front. Because their houses are so close together, homeowners may have felt compelled to plant fast-growing trees to provide a bit of privacy. After a decade, however, these trees are reaching out to block windows, touch roofs or walls, stretch toward power lines, overhang driveways, and creating lawn and sewer problems with their root systems. A tree that's going to be 80-feet tall when mature does not belong in a postage-stamp-sized yard.
Plan ahead by asking yourself these questions:
- How big is the space? This should be your top consideration. Remember that trees come in all shapes and sizes. Some are tall but narrow, while others form a broad canopy. Dwarf or slow-growing varieties are more appropriate in limited spaces. Some trees take well to pruning to keep them a desired size. How tall is your house? It's best not to have a large tree too close to the house; it should not overhang the roof. A small space could still be home to a large shrub, adding many of the same benefits.
- What is the purpose of the tree? Shade? Windbreak? Ornamental, to be seen out a picture window? A crop tree? Will you plant one tree, or do you have room for more? How fast do you want it to mature? Remember some fruit trees need others to pollinate them. A windbreak is commonly a row of trees set together with branches near ground level. A shade tree is likely a widely-branched deciduous tree. But a fruit tree provides shade and beauty, and a windbreak can shelter birds and minimize soil erosion. The best trees are multi-purpose.
- What does the climate dictate? Trees native to your region are best-suited for your climate, and will host the most wildlife. But there's nothing wrong with planting something more exotic if you're willing to do your homework and give it a bit more TLC. Be sure to avoid species classified as invasive in your area.
- How much maintenance will the tree need? Know thyself. If you hate raking leaves, maybe an evergreen tree is best for you. Fruit trees can draw insects and make a mess if the fruit isn't harvested. What's your neighborhood like? In ours, nobody cares if the leaves aren't raked immediately and a few apples litter the sidewalk, but your neighborhood may be different. If you live in a city, there may be local information available about certain types of trees recommended (or required) for planting near sidewalks and streets, as well as trees you may want to avoid due to mess, pest-problems, or climate intolerance.
I recommend that you begin your quest for the perfect tree in your own neighborhood. Look for trees you like and observe them during each season. You might even talk to the home or business owner to get their opinions on the tree. Like most people, each tree has bad habits. Does it send up obnoxious invasive sprouts from its root system? A lot of pollen in the spring? Have weak wood that results in downed limbs? Make sure you can live with the flaws.
An arboretum or local park can show you what the fully-grown trees look like. (Take along a picnic lunch and a tree identification guide so you'll know what you're seeing.) The staff of a quality local nursery can help you identify a tree from a leaf or flower, and answer questions about its habits.
Ready to buy, ready to plant
Although you may find a greater selection by mail-order, I highly recommend choosing and purchasing your tree in person. A young tree in a 20-gallon pot may be 6-12 feet tall and run around $100-200, depending on variety.
Go to a good nursery and examine the branch structures of the type of tree you're shopping for. Look for evidence of pest damage. Beware of thick roots circling the inside of the pot or thrusting up from the soil. Ask questions! And be prepared to get it home; a potted tree is heavy and awkward. A good way to damage a young tree is to stick the pot in your car's hatchback, the trunk waving in the air, and drive home on the freeway with the limbs crashing in the wind.
Once you get the tree home, plant it as soon as you can.
Remember: Your choice between spring or fall planting is important.
- Cold-hardy trees are best planted in fall. This gives them a chance to acclimatize and establish a root system before the dry season.
- Some immature trees can be more susceptible to frost damage after a transplant; if your chosen tree is one of these, choose a spring planting.
- Either way, keep your investment from shriveling by watering deeply and often through the tree's first year in its new home.
- Mulch two feet out from the trunk of the tree to keep down weeds, retain moisture, and prevent you from damaging the trunk with the lawnmower or trimmer.
- Learn how to prune your tree to maximize its assets. Never simply cut off the top of a tree to make it shorter.
Trees need time to reach their potential. Eventually, that small twig will be a thing of joy. Just sit back and watch your tree grow, adding both beauty and value to your home.