Wild Ideas: Planting the right tree at the right time

Resources for planting native trees

Dendrology (Virginia Tech): dendro.cnre.vt.edu/dendrology/main.htm

Tree identification (VDOF):

Planting trees for wildlife:

Tree maintenance:

Utility Issues:

Leaves are already starting to turn color and are expected to peak Oct. 15-25, depending on elevation. With winter approaching, it might seem counterintuitive to plant trees, but this is actually the perfect time.

Planting trees now gives them a chance to establish their roots before winter sets in. Rather than drawing up nutrients and water, as they do in spring and summer, they are pulling these essentials down into their roots in preparation for winter. Along with fall’s cool weather, that means newly planted trees will need little maintenance if they’re planted properly.

A recent Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) press release, “Tree Planting — Finding the Right Tree for the Right Place,” describes some of the benefits of planting trees, as well as how to plant and maintain them and includes a list of resources (see sidebar). The benefits include aesthetics (spring and fall color; and even bare trees can be beautiful in winter), providing shade, producing fruit and nuts and privacy screening.

On the conservation side, trees provide food and shelter for wildlife and can reduce home cooling and heating costs by providing shade in summer and protection from cold winds in the winter. To help with energy conservation in your home, it’s best to plant deciduous trees on the west and south sides, or evergreens on the north side. Trees also help prevent soil erosion, especially when planted in riparian areas with lots of runoff.

Whether trying to provide wildlife habitat or finding a tree that requires little care, the trick is to use native trees. As VDOF notes, in picking the right tree you should determine where you want to plant it and factor in the slope, the drainage, sun exposure and the type of soil.

A white oak sports its fall colors. This beautiful, long-lived native tree provides the fattiest acorns, a favorite of many wildlife species.Dcrjsr via Wikimedia Commons
A white oak sports its fall colors. This beautiful, long-lived native tree provides the fattiest acorns, a favorite of many wildlife species.

Growth habit is also important to consider, including spacing between trees, and between trees and buildings (including allowing for limb and root expansion), as well as factoring in height, especially if planting near utility lines.

The quantity and value to wildlife vary according to the species of tree, but most native trees offer more value to our local ecosystems than non-natives. Even after they are dead, trees offer shelter for many cavity-dwelling species and as perches for birds. Having trees of different sizes also encourages more wildlife diversity on your property, since different animal species occupy different vertical niches in forests.

While suburban developers tend to plant fast-growing non-native trees (such as silver maples and Bradford pears), if you really want to help Virginia’s environment for years to come, put in important, long-lived species, such as oaks, whose acorns feed a wide variety of wildlife.

A young redbud in early spring. One of the first trees to bloom, and beautiful at any time of the year, a redbud adds a great accent to yards or forest as well as providing food for wildlife.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
A young redbud in early spring. One of the first trees to bloom, and beautiful at any time of the year, a redbud adds a great accent to yards or forest as well as providing food for wildlife.

Other native tree species that are particularly valuable to wildlife include downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), paw-paw (Asimina triloba) and blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium).

While walking in natural areas of your property or nearby, including public lands, keep a lookout for trees that appeal to you and note where and how they are growing. VDOF has a nice, easy-to-use little guide, “Common Native Trees of Virginia,” that can help with identifying species, as well as describing their value and uses.

While you may want to provide habitat for a variety of wildlife, young trees may require protection from deer either rubbing their antlers on the trunks or feeding on the lower branches and leaves. The great U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service guide “Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping — Chesapeake Bay Watershed” (available at nps.gov) even has a list of deer-resistant trees, including numerous evergreens and most species of oaks.

From its delicate white flowers that light up the forest in spring to its bright-red leaves in fall, the serviceberry offers not only aesthetic value but also is important to wildlife.Amos Oliver Doyle via Wikimedia
From its delicate white flowers that light up the forest in spring to its bright-red leaves in fall, the serviceberry offers not only aesthetic value but also is important to wildlife.

Fortunately, with the growing interest in conservation and providing wildlife habitat, there are now lots of resources available to help pick, plant and maintain native trees, starting with VDOF (from whom you can also purchase many native trees, in bulk or in small quantities). For more information about trees or to order them, visit dof.virginia.gov or call 434-977-6555.

In 2012, I wrote a series on native plants, including trees, for this column — “Sources for Native Plants” (March 8), “Choosing Native Plants to Grow” (March 15) and “Native Plants for Wildlife” (March 29). In doing research for the series, I developed a “Nature Resources” page on my website (nighthawkcommunications.net) with lots of links to other sources.

 © 2014 Pam Owen

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 274 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

2 Comments

  1. At our place we are getting ready to plant Hawthorne, Sweet Gum, Black Gum, redbud, pawpaw, bottle brush buckeye, fothergilla, aronia, fringetree, and several other ecosystem friendly trees and shrubs at our place. Every time we do this we are rewarded with more beautiful environment, more birds, butterflies, and great energy! thanks for this important article.

  2. There are many trees that are “Fall Hazard” trees – this means that these trees have a much higher chance of a transplant failure (dying). You can Google lists of fall hazard trees to know which to avoid in autumn planting Oak trees most varieties are fall hazard trees. These trees do not all die but suffer much higher transplant failure rates in the fall. Certainly, bigger more expensive trees should be carefully chosen for fall planting – consult a list of fall hazard trees.

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