The first critical step in planting a tree that will stand the test of time in the urban landscape is choosing the right tree for the right place. Take a walk through a wooded natural area and you will find that most species of trees occupy a specific niche. You will not find a willow or silver maple growing on a mountain ridge with thin soils, and you will not find a sugar maple growing in a low-lying swamp. While some species of trees can adapt to a wide range of sites and soil types, many have more specific site requirements for optimum growth.
It is typical for the average homeowner to go to his local nursery or garden center and purchase a tree without any idea whether there is a single spot on their property suitable for the species. Before purchasing or planting any tree, a thorough site analysis will help to ensure you make the right choice.
Soils vary greatly throughout Vermont and the Champlain Valley and often vary on a single property. Is your soil is a sandy loam that dries out quickly in the summer, or is it a heavy clay, high in organic matter but slow to drain and often wet until late in the spring? If you are not sure, dig a hole and look at the soil profile. If the soil feels gritty and readily crumbles in your hand, it is more of a sandy loam. If when slightly moistened it can be squeezed into a ball that holds together, there is a significant percentage of clay.
A soil test analysis can also be helpful in identifying limiting soil factors such as less-than-optimal pH or significant nutrient deficiencies that you can address at the time of planting. Be sure to do some research through reputable sources or qualified garden center staff to choose the right tree for your soil.
Other important considerations in choosing a tree include winter hardiness, light requirements (full sun vs. partial shade), resistance to common diseases and insects, ornamental attributes, and ultimate size. These considerations are critical for the long-term health, vigor, and aesthetics of the tree. Keep in mind that landscapes are continually changing and evolving. While there may be plenty of space and sufficient sunlight to support the tree of your choice today, will that still be the case years in the future as nearby trees in the landscape grow and mature?
You should also attempt to anticipate any future changes to your property in the selection and placement of any tree. Will you be adding on to the house, building a new patio or deck, or upgrading underground utilities, potentially adversely affecting your newly planted trees down the road?
The British author George Orwell said, “The Planting of a tree, especially one of the long living hardwood trees is a gift that you can make to posterity…” Make your gift to posterity by investing some time into choosing the right tree for the right place. For resources on tree selection, visit the Vermont Urban and Community Forestry Program website or consult with your local garden center professional or certified arborist.
Once you have selected your tree, proper planting and follow-up care will ensure that it becomes well established. Look for tips on how to properly plant and care for your tree in the next edition of Tree Topics.
V.J. Comai is a certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture. He lives in Charlotte.