When planting trees, look up

Interlocking branches of autumn-tinged bald cypresses

As most piedmont gardeners know, the best time to plant woody trees and shrubs in our region is late fall through the winter months. As long as the ground isn’t frozen, it’s a good time to plant. Because the woodies are dormant, they put all their resources into root development.  Sturdy, well-developed root systems improve their chances of surviving summer heat and drought.

If you are contemplating adding a few woody plants to your yard before spring arrives, when you pick a spot for the new plant, please remember to look up. Do you see power lines overhead? If your tree/shrub is likely to exceed 15 feet, you need to take a few steps back before planting, so that your new woody can grow tall without upsetting the utility companies.

Even if your new plant won’t be near a power line, before you start digging, you still need to look up. For example, my yard is graced with quite a number of mature hardwoods. These enormous beauties can fool you in winter when their branches are bare.  I must remind myself just how widely  their leaf canopies spread in summer.

So when I’m contemplating adding a new woody near my forest giants, I spend a lot of time squinting at the sky, noting where neighboring oaks, sweet gums, and tulip poplars cross branches high above. If the canopy is completely closed over my head, I know that only plants tolerant of deep shade will be happy.

I look for holes in the canopy, and if I find a good one, I try to imagine how much direct midday sunlight my new plant might receive. Knowing how sun slants through my landscape as it rises and sets, I try to imagine how much angled sunlight the plant will receive. If I deem it likely to be enough light for the new plant to flourish, I start digging.

Of course, just because there’s a hole in the canopy when I plant a new tree doesn’t mean it won’t close as the forest giants towering above continue to spread their branches. In a few cases, I’ve had to relocate a smaller tree to ensure it optimum growing conditions.

Gardening is an intuitive science. It requires thinking in four dimensions, which isn’t easy and takes years of practice. The good news is that if we goof, gardening is also a fairly forgiving science.

Still, speaking as the voice of experience here, I encourage you to save yourself from much frustration by remembering to look up before you look down.

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