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The Greengrower

How to Plant Healthy Trees

Friday is Arbor Day, and trees can be a great investment in your property and the planet. Learn how to get the best results.


Originally published April 23, 2009

I know this is the age of instant gratification, but — this being the season — let's hear it for planting young trees. The rewards (I speak from experience) are huge: a personal forest or great big hedge isn't simply a visual treat, a haven for Our Friends The Birds and a way to help fight global warming. It's also a shelter from road intrusions, wind and whatever lies next door.

Even a single tree offers most of these benefits, and if it provides shade from summer sun it gets extra points, for making it easier to turn off the air conditioner.

All this and money too. As long as you don't overpay at the start, trees are a terrific investment. Deposit a 4- to 6-footer now, enjoy a major increase in property value when it hits the 14-foot mark — or, of course, soars beyond.

Related: How Planting Trees Can Trim 30% Off Your Home Energy Bills

trimming a hedge of trees

My husband Bill trimming our hemlock hedge. That's a 12-foot ladder.

The hedge in the picture is about a hundred trees long, so it had to start out as young ones. We paid 5 or 10 bucks apiece — this being 12 years ago, more or less — for an assortment of rather spindly 4- to 5-footers. Two years later, when the tallest had barely hit 6 feet and all were still more promise than performance, I got antsy. Bought a bunch of 10-footers, at about 40 bucks a pop, to plant in front of the most grievous eyesore.

Related: 11 Ways to Save Trees ... Without Planting One

Sure enough it did make an immediate difference, but the little guys only took two or three more years to catch up, and once they did that was it for the benefit. Annual pruning evened it all out. Now that every tree in the hedge is 14 to 16 or more feet tall, you can't tell which is which.

Other benefits of starting small:

* Small trees suffer less damage when taken from the field, so they recover more quickly when planted (big trees usually stay the same height for at least a couple of years; they're too busy repairing their roots to do much of anything else).

* Small trees are DIY, which matters huge when you're talking about a lot of them. You can pick up a 4-footer without serious consequences for your back. You can dig a hole for it without taking all day, and you can keep it watered ... even a skinny 8-foot tree needs about 20 gallons of water each week, more if the weather is hot and windy.

The alternative, if you're planning to stay put for a long while or have truly extensive tree needs, is a whole bunch of the tiny trees sold super-cheaply by many soil and water conservation districts and slightly less cheaply but still bargainish by mail order tree nurseries. These are little sticks, about 18 inches tall, so it's going to be a long time to glory; and you do have to protect them from deer for at least the first couple of years.

But they're certainly easy; one stroke of the shovel is all it takes. And the price is right: a bundle of 10 Norway spruce, each of which will (or more properly, can) grow 50 or more feet tall will probably cost no more than 10 bucks, and that's just one example from the dozen or so choices usually available.

The trees sold by the Arbor Day Foundation are also very small, sometimes even smaller, and they are a bit more expensive. But there are many choices; the site offers lots of help with smart decision making; and your tree dollars are (partially) converted into yet more trees being planted, a twofer if ever there was one.

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Leslie Land

Leslie Land

Leslie Land writes about gardening, food and design for the New York Times and other outlets. She blogs at Leslieland.com.
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