LIFE IS BETTER with trees. Especially if you live in a city, where people and pavement create what’s known as an Urban Heat Island effect, isolated areas that are measurably hotter than surrounding green landscapes.
Properly placed, a deciduous shade tree earns its place in the landscape by helping to lower utility bills in addition to adding beauty. Come summer, a deciduous tree provides welcome shade and elevates ambient humidity. Think of it as a cooling exhale — you’ll never get that from a patio umbrella.
Trees planted in the southwest portion of a lot provide cooling in summer during the hottest part of the day by shading windows, patios and paving from the afternoon sun, bringing down the temperature indoors and out.
On the flip side of the calendar, after leaves drop in fall, the bare branches of deciduous trees allow what little winter sun we get to warm your home and brighten interiors. Evergreen trees planted to the south of your home might block winter sunshine, potentially increasing your heat bill. Whereas a row of dense conifers on the north and northwest sides of your property creates a windbreak against cold winter winds, reducing heat loss through windows and minimizing drafts.
The familiar adage “right plant, right place” is especially important when selecting a tree for your landscape. That means becoming familiar with your planting site and choosing an appropriate tree well-suited to those growing conditions. According to the International Society of Arboriculture, planting the wrong tree is the number one cause of failure, more than all insect- and disease-related tree deaths combined.
Look around your neighborhood, and make note of the mature trees that are thriving. These beautiful, specimen trees never would have reached their full potential if they were planted in improperly matched sites. Likewise, take note of buckling sidewalks and brutal pruning, and steer clear of those trees, which likely were too large for their site.
Think ahead and plan for your tree’s mature size, and factor in spacing around utility lines, both above and below. Before you dig, call 811 to have local utilities come out and mark the location of underground utility lines.
Small (under 25 feet) and medium (25 to 40 feet) trees often are the best fit for the scale of most urban or suburban lots. In addition to mature size, consider the shape of the tree’s canopy and growth rate. A narrow columnar or oval canopy will fit more comfortably in a small lot than one that has a broad rounded canopy.
Gardeners’ go-to website for all things growing in the Pacific Northwest, Great Plant Picks (greatplantpicks.org), lists more than 150 trees that have been vetted by local horticulturists and nursery professionals and deemed appropriate for regional gardens. Each selection is accompanied by a description of that tree’s “Outstanding Qualities,” as well as critical information about its growth habit, including mature height and spread, and necessary light and water requirements.
Given that many trees have the potential to outlive those of us who plant them, choosing the right tree impacts the landscape and our community for years to come.