The Right Tree in the Right Place

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Published on: Mar. 2, 2008

Last revision: Dec. 7, 2010

‘The right tree in the right place’ is a phrase worth remembering.

Think of it like this: A Maserati may be the perfect car for cruising down a road in the Italian countryside; however, you wouldn’t haul mulch in one. Similarly, an old pickup may be just right to keep on the farm, but its 5 mpg fuel appetite would make it a drain on the wallet for long commutes.

There is no single vehicle that meets all needs of all the people.

Trees are the same. Some species, such as dogwood, remain small their entire lives, while others, like burr oak, become large and stately. The wood of soft maples and some other species is weak and breaks easily, while hard maples grow slowly and have much stronger wood. Each species has unique characteristics that make it a good fit in some landscapes but not in others.

Just like selecting a vehicle that is right for you and the use you intend to make of it, it’s important that you pick the tree that is right for the place you intend to plant it.

“Trees are your best antiques.”
—Alexander Smith

When considering what tree to plant, think first about what benefits you want from the tree. Are you planting trees as a screen from the neighbors, as an accent by your front door, for shade, or to serve as a windbreak? Are you interested in pretty trees that have beautiful spring flowers and rich fall color?

Knowing the functions you want trees to perform will help you determine which species to choose, as well as where in your landscape you might want to plant them.

Consider your site. Are there structures such as sidewalks, gardens or other trees to be avoided? Is there going to be enough room for a tree to grow?

Remember to look up! A common mistake is to plant a small sapling that will mature into large shade tree directly under a power line. This is a no-win situation for you, the tree and the utility company. Large shade trees should be planted 45 feet from overhead utility wires. If your site is close to utility lines, consider planting trees that remain small, or plant shrubs.

Whenever there is adequate room, consider planting large shade trees. The benefits from shade trees greatly outweigh those of small ornamental trees.

Big trees cool the air, provide shade, improve air and water quality and extend the life of streets. They prevent storm water runoff and soil erosion, enhance residential and commercial values, break the force of wind, and save energy used for heating and cooling. Plant large trees on the east and west sides of your home to maximize energy savings.

Big trees buffer noise and provide habitat to a variety of birds and other animals. Big trees also increase property values to the tune of about $1,000 per tree.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, large yard trees, which live about 120 years, give us annual benefits of about $55. Small trees, which can only be expected to live for about 30 years, give us about $23 in benefits annually.

“He who plants a tree, plants a hope.”
—Lucy Larcom

To plant the right tree in the right place, do your research. How big the tree will get once mature and what its general shape will be are important questions to answer.

Understanding size is pretty easy; it includes height and spread. The shape of a tree is more complex. Some trees naturally have one trunk, while others are multi-stemmed. Several kinds of trees can be purchased in a weeping form.

Although they reach similar heights, there is a big difference in the shapes of evergreens and shade trees. An evergreen is like a pyramid sitting in your yard. It takes up a lot of space at the bottom and tapers in toward the top. Shade trees turn that pyramid upside-down. Their branches are up and out of the way of people and traffic, and only their trunks are at ground level.

“Trees are the best monuments that a man can erect to his own memory. They speak his praises without flattery, and they are blessings to children yet unborn.”
—Lord Orrery, 1749

Find out if the type of tree you are interested in is susceptible to insect and disease problems. Also consider features like fall color, showy or fragrant flowers and interesting bark. Obviously, some trees lose their leaves in the winter while others remain green all year. Bald cypress trees have needles like evergreens, but they lose them in the fall.

How much shade does the tree prefer? Some species, such as oaks, do not tolerate growing in shade. Others may survive in shade, but not produce flowers. Still other trees, such as dogwood, strongly prefer shade.

It’s also helpful to know the kind of fruit a tree produces. Hollies have bright red berries that last all winter. Orchard trees like apple and cherry can be tasty additions to a yard. However, female ginkgo trees produce fruits with a very unpleasant odor, and sweet gum trees produce spiky balls that are the bane of fastidious homeowners.

Other vital characteristics to research include the hardiness of trees in the landscape. Many people prefer to select the kinds of trees that grow in Missouri forests rather than non-native species, because native trees tend to be more disease resistant and less invasive. Generally, if a tree spreads easily by seed or root suckers it’s not good for yards.

Some trees can withstand very poor soils while others will thrive only in soil that looks like chocolate cake. While considering soil, note if the site tends to hold water. Pines, for instance, cannot tolerate “wet feet,” but river birch fares just fine in moist soils.

For more information on making sure the right tree is in the right place, visit www.MissouriConservation.org/7392. There you can access information on tree selection for Missouri, the GrowNative! program and how to determine where best to plant trees in your yard.

Bigger is Better

  • Large trees remove 60 to 70 times more pollution than small trees.
  • Neighborhoods with large, mature trees can be up to 11 degrees cooler in the summer than neighborhoods without the benefit of shade.
  • One big tree in a community provides the cooling equivalent of five air conditioners running 20 hours per day and can cut cooling and heating costs by 10 percent.

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