Do your homework before planting trees

When Lynne and Kemper Smith moved to Golden, Colo., from Florida six years ago, they bought a new house and planted trees — fruit trees out back and a cache of aspen near the front door.

Very Colorado, those aspen.

Unfortunately, it was the wrong part of Colorado.

"I was a Florida boy and didn't know what I was doing," Kemper Smith says. "I didn't know they'd get this big."

Planting the wrong tree in the wrong place is common, according to arborists around the country. Homebuilders and homeowners often plant trees too close to houses, power lines or roads because they don't consider how the trees will look 20 or 30 years down the road. They choose trees that aren't necessarily suited to the soil and region.

Short-term aesthetics win out over longer-term attractiveness and care.

"I think that a lot of it is lack of education," says Jon Elliott, an arborist for Denver-area Swingle Lawn, Tree & Landscape Care.

Fall is a good time for planting trees and shrubs, but homeowners need to do their homework. Learn about your area's climate and annual rainfall, the soil makeup and how well the soil drains.

A tree's form and function counts: Is it intended as an ornamental or do you want it to grow into a shade tree?

How tall is it likely to become, and how will its growing canopy affect overhead wires and traffic lines of sight, among other things?

Lynne Smith says the little trees she and her neighbors planted already have grown too big.

"People are so excited when the trees are new and are babies," she says. "Now the trees are larger than the houses and the yards are too small. The 40-foot-tall trees — we don't have room for that."

Planting guidelines vary depending on the expert, the location and the kind of tree. Linda Eremita, staff arborist at TreePeople, a Los Angeles-area environmental nonprofit, suggests this rule: Plant trees that can grow large — 60 feet or taller — at least 10 to 15 feet from the house. Plant trees not expected to grow as tall at least 10 feet from the house.

Depending on the species, a tree planted within a few feet of a house can pose a fire hazard. Its branches may graze a home or its windows. An older, sick or soft-wood tree can crash into the home during a storm.

Underground, other dangers lurk: The root system may search out cracks in the foundation or in aging sewer pipes.

"Roots are opportunistic," says Eremita. While they won't break into an intact pipe, she said, a broken, seeping pipe is a different story. Tree roots thrive on the extra water and can wind their way into cracks, enlarging them.

"(The roots) get bigger and they get really happy, then they grow into the pipe," Eremita says.

Check with utility companies to find out where electrical, gas, water and sewer lines enter your house, and plant trees at least 6 feet away from them, says Eremita.

Also, check with your city for how near the street trees may be planted. Eremita plants trees at least 5 feet from fences, walkways and driveways. Again, she says, it depends on the type of tree.

Experts also recommend plants native to a region. For example, while the Smiths' aspens do grow well in the Colorado mountains, they become susceptible to fungus, disease and insect infestation at lower altitudes, including Golden. The river birch, which looks similar, is the better suburban yard tree there, says Elliott.

When consulting with arborists and landscapers, learn if they are certified.

"Don't be afraid to ask for references," says Elliott. With a landscape designer, contractor or architect, "Ask for a portfolio."

Cooperative extension services, often housed at state universities, have experts who can help homeowners and direct them to reliable local information. Websites also provide tree shopping and care tips.

Avoid the big-box stores for buying trees, which may not be hardy to the local climate, Elliott says. He recommends shopping at a reputable local nursery — and making sure their stock is grown in your climate zone.

Unfortunately, options become limited once a tree's trunk grows beyond 2 to 3 inches in diameter, says Elliott. Moving a larger tree is possible but often cost-prohibitive, and there are no guarantees it will survive the stress of being moved.

"By the time (a homeowner pays) the cost for me to move it, I can get them a better tree from the nursery, with a guarantee," Elliott says.

Keep an eye on trees growing close to the home — keep them pruned and watch for diseases. If a tree doesn't have a long life ahead of it — like those aspens in the Smiths' front yard, which Elliott says might survive another 15 years — plant younger, site-appropriate trees now for the future.

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