Before you plant: Match the right tree to the right site

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Real Estate

Trees add beauty and value to landscapes, but buying them on a whim or planting haphazardly can leave homeowners out on a limb.

"Someone goes to a nursery, sees a cute little tree in a pot, doesn't research it and 20 years later cuts it down," said Dick Ratcliff, consulting arborist and partner with Outdoor Design Group in Rockville. "Not doing your homework means lost growing time, then paying to cut down the tree and replant."

He cringes when he sees utility companies whacking branches off majestic shade trees planted under power lines. "Location is extremely important -- to plant the right tree in the right place," he said.

The first step is to consider the goal of tree planting: beauty, seasonal color, shade, fruit, privacy or protection from the wind?

Many homeowners like the year-round beauty of "specimen" trees, with their lovely shapes, lush spring blossoms and vibrant fall color, exfoliating bark, and architectural branch structure, said certified landscape designer Melissa Clark of Landscape Projects in Bethesda.

Crape myrtles, maples and native flowering dogwoods are popular in the area, but native dogwoods are prone to the deadly fungus anthracnose. Clark recommended disease-resistant kousa dogwoods instead.

"Crape myrtles are also pretty bulletproof," she said. Hardy Japanese snowbells and stewartia offer both beauty and shade.

For hot, humid summers, homeowners frequently turn to maples and oaks for shade. Slower-growing oaks are stately, but most offer less fall color.

"If you want instant shade, fast-growing maples are popular and have brilliant fall color," Clark said. "But don't plant too near the house or other large trees."

A 30-foot tree canopy at maturity calls for spacing of at least 15 feet.

Properly placed deciduous trees, with their leafy summer canopies, make for cooler summers and shed leaves to let in winter sunshine, Ratcliff said.

For energy savings, plant them to the east and west of the house. Evergreens to the north cut wintry winds and form privacy screens. Leyland cypresses are popular, but heavy snow can cause falls or cracking, said Clark, who suggested another evergreen such as Japanese cedar.

Planning's not done until there is an assessment of whether the tree will thrive in the local soil and microclimate. Some struggle in the area's densely compacted clay soil, Clarke said.

"But don't amend the planting hole to be too different from the surrounding soil. The tree must acclimatize," she said.

Ratcliff recommended spreading compost on top of the site after planting but not before, and then adding mulch. Soil samples should be taken before fertilizing.

Generally, as tree heights climb, so do costs. Small, fast-growing trees are the least expensive.

"Installing a 10-to-12-foot tree costs about $300. An instant 30-foot-tall tree with a 12-inch trunk can cost $25,000," Ratcliff said. Costs for trees plus landscape design and installation vary from $500 to $5,000 and up.

Ordering and planting trees in the fall, from early October to mid-November, is preferable, Radcliffe said, as watering requirements are reduced and the tree is dormant. However, sufficient water is needed for the root system to be established before the ground freezes.

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