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What's Up Magazine

As Lovely as a Tree

Aug 08, 2011 10:41PM ● By Anonymous

Trees are Mother Nature’s year-round gift. In summer, they are glorious green patches against brilliant blue skies. In autumn, they surprise us with saturated colors of gold, fire orange, and scarlet red. In winter, ice and snow cover their branches, creating a heavenly, glistening scene. And in spring, they bloom with soft shades of pink, lilac, and white. Who doesn’t love trees?

Trees not only give us year-round beauty, they also provide many other benefits. The average healthy, mature tree produces roughly 260 pounds of net oxygen annually (the average person consumes 386 pounds of oxygen per year). Trees also help reduce pollution by capturing particulates, such as dust and pollen, with their leaves. A single tree can absorb 10 pounds of air pollutants per year. A mature tree also absorbs 36 percent of the rainfall it’s exposed to, reducing runoff and soil erosion.

On a hot day, there’s nothing like the shade of a tree. And along with shade comes energy conservation. Did you know that planting trees in the proper places can reduce air-conditioning and heating costs?

According to the Arbor Day Foundation, planting large, deciduous trees on the east, west, and northwest sides can shade your home enough to reduce summer air-conditioning costs by up to 35 percent. The foundation also recommends trees for shading your air-conditioning unit to help keep it cooler and working efficiently. Shade trees help to cool concrete surfaces, yards, and entire neighborhoods, as well. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency claims that a mature tree can reduce peak summer temperatures by two to nine degrees Fahrenheit through the evapotranspiration of roughly 40 gallons of water per day; if planted near a building, the cooling that evapotranspiration and shade provide together can reduce energy bills by as much as 40 percent.

On the same note, you can block cold wintertime winds and cut heating costs by up to 30 percent if you plant a wall of trees—fast-growing cypress, for example—on the north and northwest sides of your property.

Selecting the Perfect Tree
For the greatest ecological value and adaptability, select a “true” native tree species, especially if planting for wildlife and environmental benefits. Most garden centers and nurseries carry a wide variety of native trees, but if you want to do some “digging” of another kind before using your shovel, one of the best places to start is at your local office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (see Resources box). In addition, we’ve contacted several local garden centers, landscape businesses, and tree specialists to get their recommendations.

According to our local experts, tree species that do especially well and are big sellers in our area include the pin oak, crepe myrtle, river birch, Leyland cypress, and red maple. The pin oak is popular because of its dense foliage, limited seeds, fast growth, and narrow structure that makes it well-suited to small spaces. The crepe myrtle, known for its gorgeous blooms, is also a fast grower. Often multi-stemmed, the river birch adapts best in moist soils. And the Leyland and other cypress varieties are dense and fast growing, making them ideal privacy screens and property borders. But for maintaining their shape and avoiding top heaviness, they need to be properly pruned every 10 years or so.

Native to our region and a favorite for its all-around adaptability, function, and beauty is the red maple. Unlike the smaller Japanese maples, red maples grow to be about 50 feet tall and 45 feet wide at maturity. Great as shade trees, they also produce breathtaking fall foliage and adapt well to wet soil, making them ideal for preventing soil erosion. October Glory and Red Sunset are the names of two popular varieties of the red maple. The willow oak, swamp white oak, heritage birch, and American Linden—a tall tree with dense foliage—are also excellent at providing shade.

In addition to red maples, other tree species that help contain erosion include the oak, birch, bald cypress, and silver maple. In fact, the fast-growing silver maple is an especially good tree to plant if you have a stream bank that requires measures for controlling erosion. According to a local nursery, acorns are the most important source of food in a wildlife habitat—and when an oak tree produces an overabundance of acorns, it is said to be having “a mast year.” Wildlife thrives in areas with a wide diversity of oaks. Originally native to the Far East, the sawtooth oak is quick to grow and bears plentiful acorns when still quite young (at roughly five years of age).

Conservation and Considerations
Whether seeking a tree for energy conservation, erosion control, or simply for its pure beauty, certain things need to be considered before making your choice. First, take a good look at where you will be planting the tree—and then project five to 10 years into the future. Learn exactly how tall and wide it will grow to make sure it will have enough space at maturity. For example, will it be too close to your house, driveway, or neighbor’s property? Will it spread out into a power line? Do the roots tend to be evasive? Will it flower or bear fruit—because, if so, planting either of them too close to a driveway, patio, or house may be problematic once fruit or flower petals start falling from its branches. Find out if it’s a fast- or slow-growing tree and whether it will get enough sun, especially when a lot of other trees are already on your property.

If your yard does get a lot of shade and you’re specifically wanting something that won’t grow to be too large, eastern redbud and serviceberry trees are great choices, according to one local horticulturalist. Native to Maryland, they’re perfect for our soil and climate conditions, and both produce an abundance of beautiful flowers in early spring—the serviceberry features pure white clusters, while the eastern redbud has vivid, but small, lavender-pink blossoms. Each grows to about 20 to 25 feet in height and roughly the same width. The serviceberry is particularly good for wildlife because it produces edible berries on low-hanging branches.

Local landscapers and horticulturalists generally agree that fall is the best time to plant trees in Maryland—between mid-September through late-November—because its roots will have time to “take” and extend into the surrounding soil before the ground begins to harden. You can also plant trees in the spring, prior to any signs of leaf or flower growth, but you need to be certain that the final frost of winter has passed.