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Selecting, Siting and Planting Trees and Shrubs: Home

Carpinus betulus 'Fastigiata'; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
Carpinus betulus 'Fastigiata'; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

Before choosing a tree or shrub, it is important to think carefully about the conditions of your site and what you want the tree or shrub to do for you.

Assessing Site Conditions

  • Light: Full sun (6 or more hours), partial sun (4-6 hours), partial shade (2-4 hours) and shade (less than 2 hours)
  • Microclimate: Look for areas where either cold or warm air gets trapped in your garden.
  • Drainage: Look for places where water accumulates, areas of drain pipe runoff from your house and areas that retain water in both summer and winter.
  • Assess your site from all angles. Are there electrical wires overhead that will get in the way of tree growth? Deciduous trees drop their leaves and many trees have fruits, seed pods or berries that fall. Are you planting near a pool, path, terrace, driveway, or any area where leaves or fruit will be difficult to clean up or create slipping hazards?
  • Is there root competition with other plants that will affect the health of your new addition?
  • Building foundations, sidewalks, and streets are often constructed with alkaline material that can affect soil pH. Buildings and streets also reflect light and heat, creating challenging environments for some plants.

What do you want the plant to do?

  • Are you planting shade trees? Large deciduous trees planted on the south and west side of your property, at least 15-25 feet away from your house, will create cool afternoon shade in the summer and let winter sun through to keep you warm.
  • Are you using it as an evergreen screen? It's important to think of the growth rate of the tree or shrub, and how it matures. White pines, for example, are full as young trees but then lose their lower branches as they mature. Spruces hold their lower branches and their shape.
  • Are you trying to create a windbreak? Large evergreen trees and evergreen hedges create suitable windbreaks for the west or northwest side of your property. If possible, stagger the planting of evergreens so that you don't create an impenetrable wall (some wind needs to pass through). Arborvitae, American holly, blue spruce, Norway spruce, and Leyland cypress all make good windbreaks.
  • Are you creating a foundation planting? Foundation plantings consist of slow-growing, compact plants that require little pruning and won't obstruct windows. Plant the shrubs at least 4 feet away from the foundation of your house.
Ilex opaca (American holly) can act as an excellent windbreak; photo by Marlon Co
Ilex opaca (American holly) can act as an excellent windbreak; photo by Marlon Co

Selecting a Plant

  • Learn the ultimate size and the growth rate before buying your plant.
  • Research not only the plant's height, but also its shape and the spread of its canopy. Are you looking for a large, wide-spreading tree or something with an upright, columnar growth pattern?
  • Determine the plant's light preferences and drainage requirements.
  • Are you looking for seasonal interest? Does the plant have attractive fall foliage or berries? Are you looking for a flowering tree to brighten up your yard in early spring? Are you trying to create winter interest in your garden by including evergreens and plants with attractive, ornamental bark? The Korean stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) has stunning flowers and beautiful bark that will keep you happy through the seasons.
  • Are you looking for low-maintenance trees and shrubs? Are they drought tolerant? Do you want disease- and pest-free varieties? Are they salt or pollution tolerant? White firs (Abies concolor) are low-pest trees that tolerate some shade. American holly (Ilex opaca) tolerates salt and likewise attracts very few pests.
  • Would you like native trees and shrubs that will be beneficial to wildlife, attracting birds, butterflies and bees into your garden? When selecting trees and shrubs for your landscape, remember to avoid invasive or aggressive species that could spread into the community and cause environmental problems.

Planting a Tree or Shrub

The success of your new tree or shrub begins with planting at the proper time of year. As a rule of thumb, deciduous plants should go in the ground when dormant (leafless) but when the earth is unfrozen, in late fall or early spring. Evergreen trees and shrubs will continue to take up nourishment through the colder months and should be planted at a time of year that is less challenging for them to establish themselves, neither too hot nor too cold.  

Dig a hole at least 2 to 3 times as wide as the tree's root ball and the same depth. If the tree is "balled and burlapped," place the root ball in the hole and cut the twine wrapped around the trunk. Roll the burlap off the root ball so that it lies flat in the hole. If you can remove the burlap without damaging the rootball, then do so. Otherwise, let it lie on the bottom of the hole. Natural burlap will decay but synthetic burlap needs to be removed.

The top of the root ball should be slightly higher than the ground level. Heavy trees and shrubs usually settle once they are planted and watered. Ideally, the flare of the tree (the bottom of the trunk that flares out) will be level with the soil line. It's better to plant your tree too high than too low.

Shrubs and trees purchased in containers should be removed from their pots. Roots should be inspected. If the plant is pot-bound, either tease the roots free or take a knife and cut vertically on opposite sides of the root ball to loosen the roots. Plant container trees and shrubs at the same height they have been planted in their pot.

There are two schools of thought regarding soil amendments. One says do not amend because if you add too much organic matter to the soil the roots will never venture further than the nutrient-rich area. The other advocates amending your soil with several shovel-fulls of compost to give the young plant a head start. As long as the compost is incorporated into the native soil, the plant will be fine. Both methods work; it's a matter of personal preference.

After you plant, mulch the tree. Apply 2 inches of composted bark chips or any suitable mulch. The mulch will help retain moisture in the ground and suppress weeds. Remember not to mulch up to the bark of the tree or you'll create a damp environment that is an open invitation to pests and disease.

With the mulch, create a saucer-shaped depression around the newly planted area. Fill with water. Water the tree or shrub thoroughly immediately after planting and again the following day to completely saturate the root ball. Conscientious watering for the first several years of a newly planted tree's life will make all the difference in its survival, particularly during the heat of the summer.

If you are planting a young tree in a windy site, staking may be advisable until the roots develop. If the trunk is less than 2 inches in diameter, then one 2x2 stake driven into the ground close to the trunk and attached with plastic ties is sufficient. If the trunk is more than 2 inches thick, use 2 or 3 stakes on opposite sides to anchor the tree.

When handling a tree or shrub, make sure that you never pick the plant up by its trunk. You will destroy tiny hair roots that aid in water uptake. These roots take 48 hours to grow back. Pick up your tree in the container or by the root ball.

Every tree and shrub has a good side and a bad side; make sure you position your plant in its hole so it looks its best.

Stewartia pseudocamelia has both stunning flower and beautiful bark; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
Stewartia pseudocamelia has both stunning flower and beautiful bark; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

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