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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

trees are the "anchor" of your landscape's look

When I started my formal education in Landscape Architecture last century (really!) my professor gave me some advice we can all use. “If you only have a modest bit of money to spend for a landscape design,” he told me “spend most of it on a large tree to serve as an anchor to the landscape design.”
Mexican Plum
In design terminology, a large tree is the “formgiver” that landscapes often crave. It’s the anchor around which all other landscape elements revolve.  In everyday terms, trees can reduce your heating and air conditioning costs considerably. Trees help clean the air. Trees add beauty and color.  Trees provide shelter from the rain and sun. Trees can be home to many different kinds of wildlife including birds. At the top of most lists, also, is that trees add considerable value to your home.

To that list I’d add that trees let us live. In one year, two healthy mature trees produce roughly the amount of oxygen breathed in by the average adult during that same year (Think of that the next time a tree is cut down).

Choosing the right tree for your north Texas yard is a decision not to be made hastily. Here are six guidelines to help you make the right choice;

MATURE SIZE – To the amazement of some, trees grow bigger every year. A large tree is called a “canopy” tree. Examples for the north Texas area are pecan, bur oak, cedar elm and green ash. Small decorative trees are called "understory” trees. They include redbud, Mexican plum and yaupon holly. Make sure the tree you select has a size that won’t have you cutting it back every year.

SHAPE – A mature tree has a very distinct shape. It may be tall & thin, spreading, oval, or several other shapes. Of course, a new, young tree (whatever the species) looks something like a stick. But this will certainly change. Also look at a tree’s branching habit. Some trees (magnolia for instance) have branches near the ground. Others (like cedar elm and most oaks) branch about eye-level.

COLOR – Sure, every tree is green at some time. But you may want one that’s perpetually green – or “evergreen”. Several species have vibrant fall color (like sweetgum, blackjack oak and persimmon). Maybe you want nice flowers?

DRAINAGE – All trees need good drainage (3 or 4 hours after a heavy rain, no water should still be puddled there). A few kinds can take poor drainage, but none thrive in it. So choose a location where water doesn’t stand.

Good drainage is particularly important during the first few years a tree spends in the ground – when it needs water frequently. After that, especially if you’ve planted a native tree like redbud, pecan, red oak, juniper etc., it should be watered only in extreme and prolonged drought. So avoid planting a tree in the middle of your lawn, which you’ll probably water frequently. Frequent watering stunts a tree's growth.

LIGHT – There’s not a tree alive that doesn’t need light. Different species, however, do best in differing light conditions. If you plant a species that likes full sun, in dappled shade, it may live. But it won’t grow much, and will look sickly all the time.

Printed tags on trees often say “full sun” or “partial shade”, but add your own common sense. Remember that the tag was a probably written by someone who lives somewhere else – where “full sun” means something other than what it means in Texas.

CARE – Most trees native to north Texas demand very little maintenance from you. Just the occasional fertilization (Maybe none, depending on your soil), perhaps a pruning of a branch that’s hanging over a sidewalk, or an occasional light watering (necessary in a drought only). Native trees have evolved to withstand most insects and diseases, thrive in our poor soil and require very little water.

Faddish, aggressively marketed, non-native trees (like austree and royal paulonia), on the other hand, often require a lot of ongoing, expensive care.

Why am I telling you this now? Since we’re in “the south”, an ideal time to plant any tree is right now, when it's dormant – up until spring. So get busy!


OWEN YOST, in addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is at in Denton.


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