Seeing The Forest For The Trees

Autumn is almost a pre-spring sort of season. A great deal of what we do in the garden at this time of year is in preparation for spring. We clean up to make space for plants. We put in plants aplenty so they will get a head start. Bulbs are dug in in vast quantity with visions of a riotous printemps. There is a certain anticipatory excitement in the air.
This is a very good time to plant trees. Too often, one gets so caught up in planting for ‘color’ that, the focus is on flowering plants and shrubs but seldom are trees the priority. I think it is clear that we are all aware of the environmental and ecological benefits of growing trees and yet, there is hesitation to commit to the task. For all the expenses one incurs in the garden, one could do much worse than going wrong on a tree. Since most of us start with fairly young trees, the cost of the tree and effort to plant it are not enormous. So should you think the choice of tree was a mistake or it fails to thrive, the matter can be easily remedied. However, removing a mature tree can be prohibitive – it behooves one to take the matter of tree planting seriously right from the get go.
We are connected to trees by our breath. The oxygen I need is put out by trees and in turn, the carbon dioxide the tree requires is what I exhale. We are each other’s life force. It is that simple. No further reason is required to show why one ought to plant more trees.
With that in mind, let us consider how to choose the right tree for the right space. First and foremost, decide if you would like a native tree which will support our native fauna or if you are more keen on something exotic and atypical. If you are going for the latter, just try to ensure that there are already several native trees in place or else, you will be creating an environment that plays host to pests with no natural predators around. Fruit trees are a good compromise! It goes without saying that your choice of tree must be hardy in your region.
Height of the tree is perhaps one of the biggest traits to consider if it is not to outgrow the space. Labels do not always give accurate indications. Do your research and speak to experts prior to purchase.
The canopy spread is next. How wide the tree grows will again be a space issue. Consider buildings, other trees, power lines, gutters that could get clogged when leaves drop etc.,. This might not seem a problem when first planted but as the tree grows …. The corollary to this is choose a tree that can spread nicely in an open space. Too small is equally inappropriate.
Walls and buildings should not be too proximal to trees as their root system could cause structural damage. Keep in mind that roots spread as the tree ages.
Shape or form of a tree is the next factor. Upright or fastigate trees do well in smaller spaces but if shade is desired, go for round or v-shaped ones.
Trees can also be trained as pleaches and espaliers which provide visual interest and function as fences or screens. Espaliers are excellent for growing several trees in a restricted area. Trees for such purposes must be selected appropriately. Again, for choice and technique, do your homework.
Further selection is made depending on one wanting an evergreen or deciduous tree. The former provide a constant visual and is effective for maintaining privacy. The latter changes through the seasons and loses it’s leaves in winter when the bare branches lend graphic interest.
Trees vary in growth rate. In your mind’s eye you might see a full grown oak but it’ll be a while before that sapling gets there. Often, fast growers have shallow roots and are vulnerable to being uprooted in fierce storms. As trees grow, other areas of the garden will be affected by the shade they create. If a sun loving flower bed is in the vicinity, a few years from now, it might struggle to thrive.
Do you know your soil type? Some trees will do well only in the right soil. Water drainage, pH, sandy, clay or chalky are things to take into account.
How much light and water a tree requires are important. Choose and position accordingly.
Neighboring properties are also affected by the trees you plant. While your choice might be ideal for you, it could create problems for the neighbor. Be considerate. It is much more important to get along.
Learn about how specific trees are maintained. Pruning, watering and fertilizing vary.
Finally, think about how the tree will look all through the seasons. Include traits such as flowers, interesting bark patterns, foliage and fruit as you make your selection. Reflect on why you want to plant a tree – for the environment, to create shade, as a focal point, to reduce lawn space, prevent soil erosion, for privacy. Understanding your intention will help considerably in making a wise choice.
As I’ve said in the past, tree planting is a very vital part of stewardship for the land. We must do right for and by future generations. You may not be around when the oaks reach great heights but your effort will be much appreciated by your children’s children. Pay it forward.

Note: A visit to a botanical garden is an excellent place to see and learn about trees. Do go!

Tree LuluTree NYBG 1
Tree NYBG 2

Young 'Belgium fence' espalier

Young ‘Belgium fence’ espalier

Tree NYBG 3
Tree Giverny
(c) 2013 Shobha Vanchiswar

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2 thoughts on “Seeing The Forest For The Trees

  1. Shobha, thanks for the tips about choosing trees. Your comment about considering how the tree will look in all seasons reminded me of a common problem I have: most catalogs only show plants in flower. Do you know of a book or website that shows perennials and/or trees, shrubs in all 4 seasons? Thanks!

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