Planting the right tree in the right place is an investment not only for you and your property but also for your community and future generations. You really don’t need a reason to plant a tree, but it’s a good a way to celebrate a special event, such as the birth of a child, a graduation, or a marriage. Planting a tree is also a nice way to memorialize a lost loved one.
Before you visit a garden center or nursery, do your homework to make the perfect selection for your yard. Carefully match a tree’s characteristics to your site. Matching a tree correctly to a site will give you much joy; not thinking ahead will cause grief. For example, the 40-year-old sweet-gum tree in my front yard provides shade and great fall color. Unfortunately, it also produces an endless supply of sweet-gum balls.
Here’s a list of questions to guide you in selecting the right tree.
Does it fit? Determine how you want the new tree to fit into your landscape. What is the purpose of the tree? Trees can provide shade for your home, provide a windbreak or privacy screen, or simply provide beauty to the landscape.
What’s on or below the ground? Avoid planting a tree near underground utilities, water lines, or septic systems. Remember that sidewalks, patios, and driveways will interfere with root development. Tree roots generally remain in the top 12 inches of soil and spread one-and-a-half to two times the width of the branches (crown) of the tree.
What are the site’s conditions? Know the soil type, the soil’s acidity and alkalinity (pH), the drainage, the amount of sunlight and wind, and the hardiness zone (central Illinois lies in zone 5B). Your yard’s soil quality will have an effect on the success of your new tree. At the sites of new homes, most of the topsoil is disturbed or gone, and what is left is shallow and compacted. Test soil drainage by digging a hole, 1 foot wide and 1 foot deep, in the area in which you are considering planting a tree. Fill the hole with water and see how long it takes for the water to drain. If it takes more than six hours, you probably have a drainage problem.
How big will the tree be at maturity — and how much space is available? Trees need room to grow. The 6-foot-tall white oak you plant today will grow to a height of 50 to 80 feet and spread about 35 feet. And be sure to look up: Buildings, overhead power lines, streetlights, and other trees may interfere with development of the tree canopy. If you must plant a tree under or near a power line, select a tree with a mature height of less than 20 feet.
Once you’ve secured answers to these questions, the next step in your tree search is deciding which attributes will give you the greatest satisfaction.
Select a tree with at least two seasons of interest. Winter characteristics to consider include bark or twig color, branch angle, and persistent fruit. Spring characteristics include bloom color and duration. Summer characteristics to consider include fruit type and color and foliage. Fall is all about color.
The mature shape of the tree — oval, columnar, vase-shaped — is also an important feature not to be overlooked.
Besides the growth habit and seasonal characteristics, consider the tree’s maintenance needs and its resistance to disease and insects.
Most tree species are successfully planted in the fall, from October until the ground freezes, or in the early spring. At these times, the tree is dormant or going dormant. The dormant seasons are in the fall, after leaf drop, and in early spring, before the buds have opened.
For assistance in matching a tree to your site, visit
the University of Illinois Extension’s Web site “Selecting
Trees for Your Home,” www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/treeselector/index.html.
Jennifer Fishburn is a unit educator with the University of Illinois Extension. For more information, visit www.extension.uiuc.edu/sangamon.