Living with trees

When you live with trees, it’s hard to miss the seasons. As the acorns clatter down the roof, the beech leaves gather at the front door, and the dogwood berries brighten, it’s easy to see that fall has arrived.

Many rituals mark the fall season: carving pumpkins, making apple butter and pressing cider. But fall is also a great time to plant trees. Soil temperatures are decreasing, nurseries are stocked with appropriate offerings — and planting now gives trees ample time to get established over the winter.

Some gardeners, of course, already know what they want to plant and may even have dug the holes. But if you’re not sure how to go about choosing a tree, don’t feel alone. It’s an important decision requiring time and thought — and it should be driven not by finances but by future considerations. You want the tree to have a long, healthy life and to be a source of enjoyment for those to come. The library, the Internet and conversations with other gardeners can all provide helpful approaches to tree selection.

In books and on the Web, you’ll find abundant examples of the “tree list.” Most of them include such useful information as height and width, hardiness zone, growth rate and growth form. There are tons of these lists: for small, medium and tall trees, evergreen trees, trees for utility lines, trees that tolerate drought conditions, trees that tolerate wet or compacted soils (or what one N.C. State list calls a “quagmire” situation), native trees, trees with winter interest, wildlife-friendly trees, flowering trees, trees with excellent fall color, trees for small patios and containers, salt-tolerant trees, fast-growing shade trees, trees for windbreaks and more. There’s even a list of trees suitable for sidewalk pits and parking lots!

This multiplicity of lists, however, merely underscores the importance of considering a few very specific criteria: the site, the soil type, how much room there is for the tree to grow unimpeded and remain in scale with your house, how durable and drought-resistant the tree is once it’s established, any particular characteristics you may want, and special problems such as brittle wood or problematic insects and diseases. To meet all of these criteria may be tough. But if you can satisfy at least a few, you’ll no doubt be pleased later on that you took the time now to think things through.

Here are some favorites from my own list of trees I hope one day to bring home to live with us.

Red maple is a strong-growing tree that transplants easily, adapts to both wet and dry soils, and offers incredible options for fall color. ‘Autumn Flame’ ‘October Glory’ and ‘Red Sunset’ are a few of the varieties available, all offering a height and spread of 60 by 50 feet. For smaller landscapes, ‘Bowhall’ red maple reaches about the same height but has a spread of only 30 feet.

Sugar maple is a slow grower and less adaptable to urban situations, but I love the brilliant-yellow fall leaves with their burnt-orange edges. There are two beautiful, rounded and dense specimens on Biltmore Estate property flanking Interstate 40 that I look for every fall. ‘Legacy’ is one of the newer drought-resistant cultivars that may enable this plant to be used more in the landscape.

River birch is a medium-to-large tree (40-70 feet tall) with a long-standing reputation for adaptability. Although it will shed leaves during extreme drought conditions, river birch does tolerate hot conditions and wet soils. ‘Heritage’ and Dura-Heat(TM) are known for their superior bark color and improved cold-hardiness, and Fox Valley(TM) for its small stature (10-12 feet).

American sweet gum is more commonly seen in Piedmont woods, but I love its coarse outline and incredible yellow-purple-red fall hues. ‘Rotundiloba’ is an answer to the prayers of gardeners who cannot abide the abundant fruit that drops from fall to spring. This fruitless variety with rounded leaves is slow to establish but, given ample root space, it will develop into an excellent lawn or street tree.

White fringe tree (or old-man’s-beard) is a small, spreading tree or large shrub whose adaptability points to its native habitats — namely bogs, rock outcrops and hardwood forests. The slightly fragrant flowers — 10-inch-long soft, white fleecy panicles — bloom in late spring before the leaves come out. There are male and female flowers on separate plants, and the male flowers are showier. The ‘Emerald Knight’ variety, which has been selected locally by Highland Creek Nursery, is said to be more treelike and more vigorous in growth, with dark-green foliage, heavy flowering, and a long-lasting, yellow fall color.

And finally, there’s the almighty Katsura tree. I guess I call it that because my graduate advisor made our class bow down in front of the wonderful specimens that graced the UGA campus, supposedly an annual ritual with every one of his woody-plant-identification classes. The Katsura tree is reported to reach height of 40-60 feet with a spread of 20-30 feet, and although it’s considered adaptable, it will need supplemental watering during hot, dry periods in the early years. Among the characteristics that make this tree so wonderful are the slightly shaggy bark and the leaves, which emerge red-purple in the spring and then turn blue-green in summer. In the fall, they develop a soft yellow-orange hue and give off a spicy fragrance, enhancing any landscape experience — even bowing.

The familiar remark about “so many plants, so little time” often proves all too true — especially when you’re writing an article on deadline. Although my list goes on and on, I think you can get a sense that there are innumerable trees to choose from and about as many approaches to choosing them for the garden and landscape. Just remember three things: Be realistic (an American beech that can reach a height of 100 feet should not be planted in a small, neighborhood lot); be thoughtful (although flowering dogwoods have many desirable flowering, foliage and fruiting characteristics, they decline and die a slow death in heavy, hot and dry soils); and finally, be adventurous. There’s nothing like bringing home a newfound friend and having them settle in and grow successfully — despite the many lists and recommendations.

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