As we begin to move later into the year and approach the fabulous fall planting season, it’s time to think about the trees we’d like to see sharing our space.  Time flies by quickly and you don’t want to find yourself saying “Why on earth didn’t we plant that oak thirty years ago?”



The fascinating roots of an American beech. (Brunswick, MD)


Why indeed?

Established shade trees actually add value to a landscape, and unlike extensive landscaping, do not scare off potential buyers that don’t know phlox from fig and are genuinely frightened by the thought of maintaining your botanical masterpiece. Trees give a sense of permanence…of place. And, unless they’re planted over the septic tank, tend to last far beyond the lifespan of a humble gardener.

Let’s face a morbid fact:  Gardens rarely last. Once you’ve fallen off your perch, or sold the place to buy that sailboat, or are dragged away kicking and screaming by ungrateful cube-dwelling kids, there will be changes.

Perennial beds will become lawns, prize shrub collections will be obliterated by wild grape and honeysuckle, deer fences will be removed to give the place ‘that open estate feel’ (this actually happened to our current home).  The herb bed your grandmother helped you plant just outside the kitchen door will be paved over with a shiny stainless steel outside kitchen (because it’s not enough to have just one, completely unused, gourmet kitchen these days).

In short, your garden will fade or be forced into the mists.

Deep breath everyone.

Yet through all of this agricultural Armageddon, your trees will no doubt remain to shade the next generation, and the next. And that is why you need to plant them. There is often a fine line between the altruist and the egotist.

What to choose?

Choosing a tree is a bit more complicated than deciding what groundcover will decorate the soil at its feet – particularly if you’ve got a smaller property. First you need to decide what you need from it. Shade is often at the top of this list, followed by privacy, spring bloom, fall color, structure, impact, fruit, etc. etc..


Trees perform a range of functions in the landscape - from foliage anchors to architecturally sexy legs.

Trees perform a range of functions in the landscape – anchoring with foliage or simply with sexy legs. (Garden of Linda Hostetler, The Plains, VA)


Write down what you want, why you want it, and how tall and wide you think it should be. Be truthful with yourself on that last point.  A tree that has outgrown its position is awkward and rarely suits a home.  It is also rarely removed due to cost considerations and squeamishness.

(Although if I had a dollar for every browned and broken Leyland cypress chopped down in the Mid-Atlantic, I wouldn’t be writing garden articles for a living.  Well, actually I would, I’d just be doing it from a mosaic-tiled villa in Cyprus.)


A Subaru full of precious trees.

A Subaru full of precious trees hastily grabbed in a fabulous summer sale.


Envision that tree from many angles: from an upstairs bedroom, from the porch, from the back of the property, from the kitchen window. There are a huge amount of fabulous small trees for the home landscape, and they don’t all begin with dog and end with wood.

If you’ve got more property, you can indulge in trees you’ve always wanted to grow, or grow some pretty good substitutes.  I’ve always had a hankering for a cedar of Lebanon, but it was a deodar and an atlas cedar that I came across on a 75% off sale along with a weeping copper beech and a coral bark Japanese maple this summer.  After a back-breaking weekend, they all went in and are now on a weekly watering schedule.

Perhaps you’re wishing to start your own woodland?  You’ll be looking at a mix of both canopy and understory trees.  Looking for natives?  You wouldn’t believe the fantastic choices we have from tupelo to tulip poplar.

How to plant?

With few exceptions, trees are often best planted in the fall (hence the rabid tone of this article).  Fall rains allow roots to take advantage of still-warm soils, and dwindling pest populations ensure you won’t lose all the foliage on your sugar maple before it decides to leave of its own accord.

If you are buying your trees from a nursery, tree planting is often included in the price of the tree.  If you’re shopping sales like Yours Truly, you’ll need to provide a good hole (twice as deep and wide as the pot), and amend the native soil with organic material such as leaf mold. Watering halfway through the planting process reduces air pockets in the backfill; and mulching well (please NO mulch volcanos) means roots are set for the winter.

How to care for?


This is the effect I’m hoping for in sixty years from my little atlas cedar. I may not see it…but someone will. (Hillwood Estate, Wash. DC)

Water.  Period.  Ensure a weekly dose of the stuff for the first year the tree is with you.  After that, water during periods of drought.  It’s always an excellent idea to lightly stake a tree with cross ties, and for those of us who share our space with deer, a low cage is VITAL unless you’d like an expensive bit of landscaping broken in half by a rutting buck.  Been there.  Twice.

There are other planting considerations of course, and while many of these are important, don’t let them send you into analysis paralysis.  The sooner you get those trees in the ground, the sooner they will be shading and beautifying your world.

For more resources and help with choosing, planting and caring for your trees, visit Bartlett Tree Experts at  or the Arbor Day Foundation at