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How to select a tree for your landscape

Last spring, I wrote about wanting to wait to see how my property fared after four distinct seasons.

Now, I feel like I have a better understanding of how water (or snow) moves (or doesn’t move), of how the potential location of the chicken coop would get crushed by snow and where everyone likes to hang out. I came out with some different directions than what I imagined last year, so I’m thankful I waited to do anything drastic.

One of the first things we intend to do in the landscape is restructure about one-third of our front yard, which is turf and a huge Colorado blue spruce. One of our thoughts is to remove the tree (don’t freak out – there is one more on the property) and replace it with two to three more site-conducive trees. This would consist of one large landscape tree (40 to 45 feet tall) and perhaps two smaller trees, ranging in height from 15 to 20 feet. And since I’m inching toward 50 years old, I can hopefully see these trees in their full size before, you know, I move to Arizona.

Did you know that the average life of a tree in the landscape is only 8 years old?

Homeowners and landscape designers often put trees in places where they have little or no chance to establish and thrive, with the major restriction being rooting space.

For example, say you want to plant a Schubert chokecherry, a nice ornamental tree that can frequently reach 25 feet in height. At maturity, that tree will most likely have a trunk diameter (distance from one edge of the trunk to the other at chest height) of around 6 to 8 inches. Therefore, a tree that size would require about 500 cubic feet of soil for proper root growth. Now, you see why it’s not uncommon for trees in parking lots or sidewalks to have short lives: They have extremely limited rooting space.

Once you decide on a tree and feel comfortable that it will have ample rooting space and can withstand the climatic adaptations – temperature, water, wind, sun – of your site, then it is time to purchase a tree from your local nursery.

Instead of trying to find the “right” tree at the nursery, it may be easier to find the “wrong” ones and pass them over. More likely than not, especially with our local retailers, the vast majority of trees will be healthy, insect- and disease-free, and will have exhibited good growth in the past two to four years.

What to look for:

Co-dominant trunks (trunks of equal size). Unless you are purchasing a multi-trunk tree (e.g. Gambel oak, lilacs), steer away from those with co-dominant trunks because they account for the majority of storm-damaged trees.At least two structural roots within the top 1 to 3 inches of the soil surface. What is a structural root? These are the large, woody roots that form and give shape to the root system and provide mechanical support to the tree.A visible trunk, or root, flare if you are purchasing a large tree. Root flare is where the base of the trunk meets the root system and should be seen right at the soil line. If your tree does not have a root flare, it could be a sign that it was planted too deep. But be cautious, on many small trees, the flare is hardly noticeable. And remember: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

Darrin Parmenter is the director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach him at darrin.parmenter@co.laplata.co.us or 382-6464.

Darrin Parmenter