Gardening | Living

How to Choose and Plant the Best Tree for Your Space

plant a tree
Credit: iStock/Lovelyday12

There is an old saying, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is today.” In Florida, we celebrate Florida Arbor Day on the third Friday of January, and that is an excellent time to plant a tree in your landscape.

You know you’re a true Floridian when you are willing to walk twice as far to get a shaded parking spot on a hot summer day. Trees provide many benefits to us in the Sunshine State, foremost by offering welcome shade to our landscapes and parking lots. In fact, tree-shaded neighborhoods’ summer daytime air temperatures can be up to 6 degrees cooler than that of treeless areas. Leaf canopies from trees lower summer air-conditioning bills, reduce the amount of maintained lawn grass and contribute to lower asthma rates in cities by reducing air pollution.

And not all tree benefits are surface level. Underground tree root systems help to prevent erosion and increase rainwater percolation into the soil during rainstorms. Those deep roots also help to prevent fertilizer runoff and reduce nonpoint source pollution.

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As Dr. Jack Payne, former senior vice resident of agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida, pointed out, trees are worth far more than their selling price. They reduce the cost of public health, stormwater management, energy savings, soil erosion management and more. A recent study of Tampa’s trees estimated that they save the city $35 million a year.

Establishing a Newly Planted Tree

Once you decide to install a tree, one of the first questions is often, “How big of tree should I get?” It depends on your budget and aesthetic preference, but we know that smaller trees from the nursery generally establish more quickly than larger ones. In some cases, they can outgrow larger trees, too.

When selecting the perfect spot for your tree, look up. Make sure there is plenty of space for the mature tree to grow, away from power lines and other utilities. Consider the ultimate size of the tree and space it at least 12 feet from your home to give it plenty of room to grow. Call 811 before you dig to ensure that you will not hit any underground utilities when preparing the hole.

Once these important steps are completed, carry your new tree to the spot by the container and not the trunk. Remove the container or any synthetic wrappers around the root ball.

Before you plant, brush away excess soil from the top of the root ball until you have exposed the first root or root flare. Sometimes trees outgrow their containers and become pot-bound, causing roots to wrap around the root ball instead of branching out from it. If you see any circling roots, cut and remove any that wrap around the trunk.  These tend to keep growing in a circle and can strangle the trunk if not removed.

Dig a hole that is two times the diameter of the root ball and 90% of the root ball deep.  Do not add compost or other organic materials; use only the native soil. Place the tree in the hole and backfill with the soil you removed. Next, water thoroughly to moisten the root ball and to remove any air pockets. Stake the tree if necessary and apply 3 inches of mulch over the root ball, taking care to not mulch too close to the trunk.

Trees require regular watering to keep the soil moist while they become established in their new location. UF/IFAS recommends watering daily for the first seven to 10 days, every other day for the following two weeks, and then once per week until it is established. A good way to estimate the length of this period is to continue watering six to 12 months for each inch of trunk diameter. The benefits you will get from your new tree(s) are worth the effort and the wait.

Selecting a Species

Choosing the right tree species for your location and site is as important as establishing it well. Southern magnolia, white fringetree, tulip tree and dogwood are native trees that provide flowers that Florida gardeners, birds and other wildlife enjoy. Trees like loquat, avocado, mango, plum, persimmon and citrus provide delicious fruit, too, and they add shade and beauty in our landscapes.

The chart below will help you choose the best native trees for your landscape, depending on where in the state you live.

For more information on the trees that are best for your area, contact your local UF/IFAS County extension office. You can find your local office at gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu.

tree planting tips

About the Author: Wendy Wilber is the statewide Master Gardener Program coordinator and an environmental horticulture agent for UF/IFAS Extension.