For A Thriving Tree, Location Is Key


Location, location, location—the battle cry of the real estate agent. Of course, it’s not just for realtors, it’s for lawn care operators and landscape contractors too. Perhaps the most important element in the landscape in terms of location are trees, as it’s not easy to move one if it’s in the wrong place. The answer? Put it in the right place in the first place.

When it comes to placement on a property, separation of turf and trees allows for the appropriate inputs for each. (Photo: John C. Fech)

Property Inventory For Potential Plantings

The first step in the process of tree placement is to look at all the other woody plants on the property. This can be done with a legal pad and a #2 pencil, or by using the latest landscape design software. In the end, the step of acknowledging the existence and size of the plants already in place is much more important than the tool used. The key is to simply note, mark, or describe through a rough sketch where specific plants are and how much space they take up.

Through this inventory process, “holes” or “gaps” in the landscape are identified. Open spaces don’t necessarily mean that a tree/shrub must be planted there, but it’s a good start. In addition to a gap or space, an existing tree in poor condition should be considered as a “hole,” in that it needs to be removed, and thus, an empty space for a new tree will be created.

Site Assessment/Analysis For Trees

The second part of this step is to document and analyze the specific set of influences that are present in each part of the landscape, especially the ones that are close to the open spaces.

The important factors here are: soil drainage, prevailing winds, nearby plantings, available sunlight, soil pH, slope, irrigation system coverage, and views that need to be retained or blocked. Most all of these can be changed or adapted to the specific needs of the eventual tree or shrub; it’s paramount however, that these factors are written out and relied upon when the time comes for choosing a specific genus and species.

Without any hesitation, of all those indicated above the two most important site considerations are: space available for lateral rooting and poor soil.

This scenario shows inadequate soil volume for the trees. (Photo: John C. Fech)

If open ground to either side of the new planting is not available, the tree will not be able to spread its roots horizontally underground, thereby constricting itself. It’s helpful to scan the space during the inspection to see if turf exists on at least two sides of the prospective tree. If not, it’s probably be best to leave it open.

With only a few exceptions such as cottonwood and bald cypress, most trees prefer well to moderately well drained soils with a healthy mix of sand, silt, and clay aka loam. Unfortunately, if a property is less than 30 years old, the soil that the trees and turf are growing in is likely to be comprised mostly of subsoil that was dug out for a basement during construction and redistributed over the lot. Action steps to repair problematic soils include “scoop and dump,” radial trenching and soil ripping, followed by incorporation of compost to rebuild macropores and re-establish appropriate organic matter levels.

Selling A New Tree Installation

As with any other enhancement, such as upgraded irrigation or hardscape, a new tree or shrub must be sold. This is a two-part process. The first is to help the client identify their goals for the new tree(s)—what purpose will they serve? In short, interview the client and present options for them. If it’s an existing client that you have a good relationship with, it’s usually much easier than responding to bid request, but the action is the same; most want and need facilitation aka “their hand held” as they think about a desire for fall color, shade, winter interest, blooms, screening, and texture.

tree placement
Subsoil left for landscape, as seen here, is problematic for trees. (Photo: John C. Fech)

Once the client has settled on their needs/wants, it’s helpful to take the notes off site and work out a short list of possible trees/shrubs that will fit the bill. In most cases, the sweet spot is about three species/cultivars per open spot in the landscape. If you choose just one, there’s the risk of their friend’s opinion of “oh, that’s just awful,” or a previous bad experience clouding the choice. Alternatively, presenting a dozen or so choices makes it really hard for some clients to make up their mind, especially with all the “latest and greatest” found across the internet when you type “good trees” into the Google search bar. Another benefit to providing three options is that in some cases, you can find a reduced price from your supplier that can be passed onto the client.

Separation Of Trees And Turf

In terms of location, trees and turf must be separated in the landscape in order for both to succeed. Why? They have very different needs. On average, once established, trees need one-third to one-half as much water and fertilizer as turf. Trees placed in the middle of a lawn usually struggle to grow well due to being overwatered and fertilized; this is because the applied turf water and nutrients cannot be applied to a lesser amount if trees and turf are co-located.

Two more benefits that are realized when trees and turf are separated: 1) An application of 2″ of natural wood chips, pine needles, or the like can be placed over the roots to replicate a natural forested situation, and 2) Separation greatly reduces the likelihood that inexperienced mower and string trimmer operators will damage a tree trunk.

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Once established, trees need one-third to one-half as much water and fertilizer as turf requires. (Photo: John C. Fech)

Choosing A Tree Species

Once all of these steps have been taken, it’s time to choose a tree species. Fortunately, the groundwork or “species recipe” has been established. Starting general and moving towards specific, the process usually goes something like this… Deciduous tree in shady conditions, no slope, turf on east side, consideration of client’s desires, fall color, small to medium height, multi-season interest… leads to the possible choices of serviceberry, cotoneaster, and witch hazel.

Enhancing Success For Tree Placement

In addition to square footage available, the separation of trees and turf, and soil remediation, the consideration of several other factors will greatly increase the chances of success. Three factors stand out as follows:

Height and width. It’s important to choose a woody plant for a landscape that fits in terms of size. Overall eventual size is often overlooked, leading to a misshapen tree or shrub crammed into a way-too-small space, looking spindly and leaning towards the sun.

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Once the tree is chosen for the property, following some simple planting steps will help to ensure successful growth. (Photo: John C. Fech)

Disease resistant cultivars. Installing disease susceptible cultivars almost ensures problems instead of healthy, sturdy plants. The crabapple is the classic example in that over 200 cultivars are available—half of which are resistant to and half of which are susceptible to pathogens such as cedar apple rust, fireblight and apple scab.

Installation guidelines. Some people simply don’t know how to plant a tree! It’s pretty simple… dig a shallow hole, just as deep as the root ball and three times wider; take time to untangle the roots that are commonly circling in the pot; place the top root at the grade or an inch higher; spread out the roots in the planting hole; carefully replace the original soil that was taken out during planting; avoid mixing in soil amendments unless the entire landscape site can be amended; place 2″ of wood chips over the root mass and water thoroughly; and keep the soil moist, but not soggy or dry, over the next six months.

Fech is a horticulturist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture. The author of two books and over 400 popular and trade journal articles, he focuses his time on teaching effective landscape maintenance techniques, water conservation, diagnosing turf and ornamental problems, and encouraging effective bilingual communication in the green industry. Fech works extensively with the media to extend the message of landscape sustainability, with over 100 television and radio appearances each year.

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