Tree Planting Tips For Southern Utah Yards
By Dee Maranhao
There are many ancient trees such as this pinon pine in the beautiful Utah outback. In our travels we have been awestruck by majestic Ponderosa pines growing in a draw surrounded by terracotta red cliffs. We have camped under 200-year old junipers, picnicked beneath the enormous shade canopies of gnarled and worn cottonwoods and shared a camp space with a 100-feet-tall Douglas Fir that could be 500 years old. These are the native trees that have lived for hundreds of years, surviving all sorts of adversity to reproduce and to perpetuate their species.
There are also many old, beautiful, mature trees in the landscape that are large and well established. It is hard to imagine that they were once just small saplings that someone, a hundred or more years ago, planted with the vision of what the trees would be for future generations.
Ginkgo biloba (Maidenhair Tree) is among the oldest surviving trees known, going back to prehistoric times. Growing to 50 feet tall and half as wide, they are beautiful at all seasons, long-lived, fire, pest and disease resistant and low water users in maturity. Slow growers, the growth rate is accelerated if given more water in the early years. Here, we use the ginkgo (considered an infant in tree years at ten years old!) as a specimen tree that will eventually claim the entire bed that it now shares with a juniper. We also have three ginkgos, grouped twenty feet apart, that will serve as understory trees in the silver maple grove. Someday, the two long living species will create a shady cool retreat for our grandchildren and their grandchildren.
Unfortunately, there are some trees that are not as happy in their circumstances. Quite often, their owners look at the scrawny, structureless, struggling, and perhaps messy thing thinking, “I wonder who on earth planted that tree here?” As it is with nature and also with the planting of trees in the urban landscape, the creed remains the same–“Choose the right tree for the right place.”
If you are faced with the challenge of designing trees into your landscape or with the task of replacing an inappropriate tree, its important to do your homework and research trees before you buy and plant them. Some considerations for successful tree selection:
- Choose trees than can live in USDA Cold Hardiness Zones 5 to 7 (dependent upon your location in Utah). If you plant outside the recommended range, the trees may survive for years during mild winters, but when they are subjected to the sure-to-come frigid extremes, they may burn badly all the way to the root zone. At the very least, they show leaf tip burn every year and have to recover each spring, which ultimately makes for a continually stressed tree. Likewise, consider the heat and wind tolerance of the tree. Look for trees that have the ability to withstand high summer temps and the cold.
- Select fire resistant trees for planting near structures. Our land is timbered with native pinons and junipers. We began a tree replacement program at the start of the landscape planning process, gradually replacing the flammable junipers near the home with more fire resistant trees.
- Consider soil needs. We have alkaline soils and we live in a desert. It is much easier to avoid planting trees that require acidic soils. Even if you plant the tree in pure peat, the root structure will surpass the amended area and ultimately will have to survive in our native alkaline soil. Trees that survive in lean, alkaline, sandy or clay soils are the better choice.
- Water is a big issue for gardeners. With an extensive list of low-water-use trees, it is easy to find the perfect tree for your garden. If you favor a species that needs a bit more water, then site it carefully so that it is in an area that drains well and might receive runoff from other plantings. Maintain a 4-inch deep layer of mulch out to its drip line. The extra attention is a fair trade for all of the benefits that come from planting a large and long-lived tree.
- Determine the area needed to accommodate the tree’s maximum height and width at maturity. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can control the growth or size of a tree. This only leads to continued maintenance over the entire life of the tree as you hack at it yearly to keep it away from the house or worse yet, top the tree to keep it away from power lines–a practice that means certain decline for the tree.
Trees are invaluable for their contributions to ecology, emitting oxygen, providing animals with food and shelter, anchoring the soil and filtering the air. Their statuesque beauty can frame a home, a vista, a drive, and a garden. They provide a windbreak, hide an unsightly view and create a haven for understory plantings. They can be planted as a single specimen around which the garden is built. They can be planted in groves to create a hospitable shady garden retreat. Whatever your style, whatever your needs, start with a tree and design the garden around it.
Shopping for and Planting Trees
Select trees with sound structure and a strong branch canopy. When shopping for a tree, look for a straight strong trunk. Make sure that the tree has not been topped. If possible, check out the roots. You want white, healthy roots to the bottom of the container, with minimal winding or circling of the rootball. If you buy bare root, make sure the roots are firm and not mushy, light in color, and that there is growth of some smaller fibrous roots.
Proper planting is critical to a tree’s success. Trees that have been “deep planted” decline over the years (the larger the tree, the slower the decline–but decline is inevitable). Plant so that the rootball is at the exact same level or even a bit higher that it was in the pot.
For ornamentals, there is no need to amend the soil. Rototill and work the soil deeply to increase air spaces to allow for water percolation and root development.
Water, water, water. Young trees need slow, deep, but infrequent watering (allow the soil to dry out between waterings) to develop a deep, wide, strong root system. Even if they are drought tolerant, they need extra water during their early years. For spring plantings, water slowly and deeply at least once a week through the next three years. Then gradually wean the tree of weekly watering over the next year. At that point it should be able to survive on slow and deep supplemental watering during extended dry spells.