Home: Garden: Branching Out

Want to Make Your Mark in This World? Plant a Tree

There comes a time in every gardener’s life when marigolds and the occasional new rosebush aren’t enough. Said time arrives along about one’s 40th birthday, when the omnipotence of youth encounters the pulled hamstrings of middle age. Once mortality smacks you


There comes a time in every gardener’s life when marigolds and the occasional new rosebush aren’t enough. Said time arrives along about one’s 40th birthday, when the omnipotence of youth encounters the pulled hamstrings of middle age. Once mortality smacks you upside the head, you find yourself pondering the legacy you’ll leave when you pass on to those elysian fields where delphinium really are hardy and there are no deer. And chances are, your thoughts will turn to trees.

You know. Trees. Big things with trunks and leaves and branches. And the prospect of planting anything so big, so audacious, so … so permanent will likely freak you out, and you’ll decide to just put in another rosebush. Fight that urge. Plant yourself a tree.

Why not? The world needs more trees. They’re ecological warriors, sucking up excess carbon monoxide and exhaling oxygen. And in a home landscape, they’re the difference between shortsighted and sublime. You can gussy up your place with ornamental grasses and butterfly bushes, but without trees, or even a tree, you’re a quitter, uncommitted, not in it for the long haul.

O-kay. But — now you’re getting nervous again — what sort of tree? To calm yourself, just think of your tree as an overgrown perennial or shrub. The same considerations apply — sunlight, soil type, available space. “You can’t plant a 40-foot tree five feet away from your house,” says John Jacobs, owner of Somerset Nursery in Zionsville, “or the branches will come in through the windows.” That little sugar maple may look cute in its five-gallon pot, but how big will it be in 20 or 30 years? And while “tree” conjures up a grade-school crayon sketch—a single trunk topped by a ball of leaves — trees are amazingly diverse. There are inverted-vase pine trees, multistemmed birches, graceful willows, harlequin-barked sycamores. So before you choose, hie yourself to a local showplace—the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania in Chestnut Hill, Bartram’s Garden in Southwest Philadelphia, or Chester County’s Welkinweir—to see what those whippet-thin saplings will grow up into.

[sidebar]How to Choose

“You want to put the right plant in the right place,” says Paul Meyer, director of the Morris Arboretum. “Keep proportions in mind, as well as function and design.” Function as in, do you want your tree to bear apples, or provide shade? And design as in, do the tree’s shape and color, including fall hues, complement your house? Think too, Meyer urges, of how much trouble you’re willing to go to. You don’t want a high-maintenance tree any more than you want a high-maintenance lover — do you?

That’s why Catherine Smith, owner of Redbud Native Plant Nursery in Glen Mills, sells only native trees that naturally grow in our region. Such plants are already adapted to local conditions, and so require less watering and chemical intervention. “People tend to think that ‘native’ means ‘limited,’” says Smith. “But there’s a lot to choose from.”

Jacobs takes a wider view, perhaps because one of his favorite trees is the Japanese maple. “Landscaping today is on a global scale,” he says. “Growers search the world for the best and brightest, and share between cultures.”
You can pay a lot for a tree — thousands of dollars for a mature specimen, if you can’t resist instant gratification. But be forewarned: The older and bigger the tree, says Smith, the more stressed it will be by a move. Meyer agrees: “The smaller the tree, the more easily it will transplant and recover.” Trees are measured by caliper — the diameter of the trunk. For new suburban plantings, Meyer prefers a two-inch caliper, which usually means a tree that’s 12 or 14 feet tall. “It’s moderately sized, but it has some impact,” he says. “It won’t be snapped off by vandals, yet it’s still easy to handle.”

How to Plant

When it comes to the planting process, experts agree that the surest way to lose your investment is to plant too deep.

“Dig a hole as deep as the soil in your pot,” says Smith — not, she notes, as deep as the pot itself. “You don’t want the root crown below the soil line.” And don’t go deep; go wide: “Twice as wide as the root ball, if you have the energy.” If your soil is hard clay, loosen it up and mix it with the soil from the pot. Jacobs advises adding peat moss; Smith warns against it: “No peat! We’re ruining bogs in Canada!” She suggests getting leaf compost from your township instead: “You want the microbes — you’re amending to get life in your soil.”

Decide according to your political bent. But if you’re planting in clay, as so many of us are, be careful to “feather” anything you add — peat, compost, soil from the pot—well out into it, so you don’t end up with the all-natural version of an underground terra-cotta pot that will drown your investment. “You can kill a tree with love or with neglect,” Meyer says. Form a slight saucer around the buried root ball to hold water — and don’t jump on the soil to compact it. “Roots need to breathe,” says Meyer. Water slowly, with a drip line or one of those bags that surrounds the trunk.

Smith says customers often come to her looking for fast-growing trees, to screen a neighbor’s unsightly garage or swimming pool. But there’s a trade-off for fast growth: weak wood. “You can get instant height with a tulip poplar,” she says. “But you’ll lose branches to snow, ice and wind.”

A rule of thumb: After transplanting, a tree takes one year to recover for every inch of its caliper. “So a one-inch-caliper tree will be fully recovered and growing again in a year,” Meyer says, “but a six-inch caliper will sit and not grow for five or six years.”

However large a tree you choose, says Jacobs, water it as soon as you plant it, and then every three to four days for the first month or so. It’s not necessary to fertilize at first, but should you feel the urge, he recommends Espoma Tree-tone, sprinkled on top of the root ball, not in the hole.

Your home is your biggest investment, and adding the right tree adds to that investment. Just remember that whatever you plant, you’re aiming to create the perfect setting for your home. The best tree, Jacobs says, will “make it look like your house grew up there, not like it dropped in from the sky.”