Invest in the future — plant a tree

November 14, 2012 

I have been planning to plant a new tree in the front yard. This would seem like a simple chore, but selecting and planting the proper tree is more difficult than you realize. If you want to see the results of not planning before you plant, just ride through your neighborhood and look at the trees. I see so many trees that are planted too close to houses and need constant pruning. Other trees are too close to walks and their roots push up and break the concrete. Planting the wrong tree can lead to stunted plants, plants with dead limbs or trees with broken branches.

People often want to correct these problems after the tree is planted, but this is usually not possible. Since a tree is likely to live in an area for a long time (longer than most of us will live) then we need to spend a good bit of time planning how to plant it.

First, ask yourself why you want a tree. Do you need to shade a window, air-conditioning unit, building, etc.? Take time to consider the direction of the sun through the day. Although the sun always rises in the east and sets in the west, the summer sun will tend to be more in the north and the winter sun will lean more to the south.

Do you want to create a border, block a view, or create a windbreak? Consider the maximum and minimum height you will need before selecting a tree. Consider the tree’s width at maturity before deciding how close to plant them.

Remember that the best time to plant trees is not Arbor Day. The best time to plant container and balled and burlapped trees is in the late fall and winter. In Georgia, we have relatively mild winters. This means that trees planted in the late fall and winter can grow roots during the winter. Plant trees now and they should have time to grow a strong root system before they have to deal with our hot, dry summers. Planting in the spring will not give you this advantage.

Select a location that will be big enough for the tree when it is fully grown. That cute, little tree in the five gallon container may one day reach out 25 to 30 feet in each direction. Know the mature size of your tree and then select a site that will accommodate the full-grown tree. Do not plant trees closer than 10 feet from a house -- farther away is usually better.

Watch for power lines overhead and think about utilities that may be underground. To locate utilities underground, call 811 and someone can come out and mark the utilities. If you do not do this, you can be injured or killed if you dig into utilities. If you damage utilities, you can be responsible for the cost of repairs.

Homeowners ask about what types of trees will grow into sewage drain lines. The answer is, “All of them.” A sewage line is free water and fertilizer for a tree. Avoid planting trees over drain fields. Trees that like wet soils can be worse than others about growing into drain fields. These include willows, river birch and maples.

Does the site receive full sun or shade, is it well-drained or not, will the tree be irrigated? Know your site and then select a tree that matches that site. See this publication for a list of trees that you can use: http://tinyurl.com/cod4ngh.

Consider the pest resistance of your tree. Some trees have pests that you cannot cure. Growth rate is another factor. We want the tree to grow quickly, but many fast-growing trees also have problems. Fast-growing trees such as silver maple and Bradford pear will eventually get brittle branches that break suddenly.

There are no perfect trees, but several good shade trees that grow relatively quickly include lacebark elm, willow oak, Shumard oak and Japanese zelkova. Southern sugar maple (also called Florida maple) and red maple grow well but will do best in irrigated locations. See this article from which I gathered much of this info for more tree ideas: http://tinyurl.com/artyx55.

Willie Chance works with the University of Georgia Center for Urban Agriculture.

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