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Right Tree Right Place

Choose the Right Tree for your Site

pine treesDeciding to plant a tree is a significant first step! But before rushing off to the garden center, first, do a little research and a simple layout. With a little planning, you can produce a landscape that will cool your home in summer and tame the winter winds. Your well-planned yard will contain trees that grow well in the soil and moisture of your neighborhood, and your trees will avoid collisions with power lines and buildings. And the tree will meet your criteria for tree and location.

So before you select your trees, take these factors into consideration:

  1. Height. Will the tree bump into anything when it is fully grown? Except for small trees, you don't want to plant close to power lines.
  2. Canopy spread. How wide will the tree grow? You don't want it to be too close to your house.
  3. Deciduous or coniferous? (Will it lose its leaves in the winter?) For a buffer, evergreens are often a popular choice.
  4. Form or shape. A columnar tree will grow in less space. Round and V-shaped species provide the most shade.
  5. Growth rate. How long will it take for your tree to reach its full height? Slow-growing species typically live longer than fast-growing species.
  6. Soil, sun, and moisture requirements.
  7. Fruit, nuts. No one wants messy droppings on busy sidewalks or parking areas. On the other hand, if you're going to attract birds and support wildlife, consider those native trees with the greatest value, such as oaks.
  8. The hardiness zone indicates the temperature extremes a tree can be expected to grow. Chatham is hardiness zone 7a, but you must also consider how exposed the tree will be to wind and salt spray.

Another consideration is ornamental or native trees. There are many reasons to choose either. But if a native tree will meet your requirements, it is the better choice since it is meant to grow here and will provide food and habitat for wildlife.

How to Plant a Tree

(Paraphrased from The Tree Care Primer by Christopher Roddick with Beth Hanson of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Handbook #186)

Planting a tree correctly will enhance its viability, avoid the danger of wasting hard-earned money in its purchase if planted incorrectly or in the wrong spot, and it will provide years of enjoyment. Two of the most important factors are to plant it at the right depth and to keep it from drying out while it settles into its new home.

  1. Dig a hole that is three to five times the diameter of the root ball or container and deep enough to accommodate the roots. Look for the tree’s flare (the area where the first roots branch from the trunk). If it is a balled tree, remove enough of the burlap to expose the flare. Measure the height from the base of the tree trunk flare to the bottom of the root ball in order to give you the right depth.
  2. For a container-grown tree, remove it from the pot and separate and spread out the roots, then measure the height of the root ball.
  3. Prune back as many of the root tips as you can see to promote a healthy and fibrous root. When making a clean cut to the moist and healthy part of the root make sure you use a clean, sterilized tool.
  4. Set the tree in the hole making sure that the trunk flare lies slightly above the ground and center it in the hole. It is safer to plant it slightly above the ground level, rather than below. The soil will settle after planting which will ease it more into ground level.
  5. At this time, you may remove as much lacing and wire as you can from the balled tree which will promote natural growth of the tree.
  6. Ensure that the tree is standing straight and then fill the hole with the dirt that was removed so it will adapt well naturally. Pack the soil lightly around the tree.
  7. Water the new tree slowly. Give it a good drink!
  8. Stake the tree only if it can’t stand up by itself.
  9. Prune dead damaged limbs, but wait at least a year before making any more significant cuts. Let it settle into its new environment.
  10. Do not wrap the trunk.
  11. Do not amend the soil around a new tree and do not fertilize it.
  12. Spread a good organic mulch two to three inches deep around the root zone but away from the trunk to avoid any rot. Consider an organic lobster/crab mixture. Remember that our indigenous friends taught us to plant with a fish!
  13. Water, water, water for the first three years while it gets established and promotes the beneficial fungi that surrounds it.

One last note, trees have a symbiotic relation with the other trees around it, so be sure they do not compete with water resources or space.

Enjoy your new tree and watch it flourish!

Tree Care

Did you know? A tree’s roots are found in the top 18 inches of soil and can extend out up to three times beyond the area of the tree’s canopy. The woody roots support the tree and store the carbohydrates that feed the tree. The smaller roots absorb the water and nutrients. Simply knowing this, it is critical to use best practices to take better care of our trees.

From Plant Northern Virginia Natives,

Avoid soil compaction - compacted soil will negatively impact tree health.

  • To dissuade pedestrians from walking over the roots and to prevent accidents with lawn mowers and string trimmers, plant shrubs and groundcover under trees
  • Add a three-foot radius ring of wood chip mulch (do not let it touch the tree trunk.) Organic material gradually leads to soil loosening.
  • Don't disturb more than a third of the root zone. For example, don't disturb the soil closer than 20 feet from the trunk of a 10-inch diameter tree.
  • Avoid driving machinery or vehicles over the root zones of trees.

When digging

Avoid damaging roots. As a rule of thumb: don't cut roots that are wider than your thumb. This is especially true for tulip trees, which are especially susceptible to fungal disease from damaged roots.

Limit wood mulch

The only things trees need under them is their fallen leaves. If you mulch, use wood chip mulch that allows air circulation. Do not heap more than 2-4 inches deep, and keep away from the base of the trunk.   Avoid creating mulch mounds around trees from the accumulation of annual wood mulch – it will create unhealthy conditions.​


  • Be very careful about gardening under trees, and if you are installing perennials, try to choose 2-inch plugs rather than quart pots to minimize disturbance of tree roots when digging them in.
  • Watch for shallow roots. Generally speaking, trees that are adapted to grow in bottomlands will have shallow roots. Examples include Red Maples and Sycamores, but there are many others - just look to see if the tree can be grown in wet conditions. (An exception is Hackberries, which grow in wet areas but have deep roots.) Interestingly, those wet-tolerant plants often grow quite well in dry, compacted soil because they can tolerate low oxygen conditions.
  • Never pile additional soil on top of the ground over tree roots within the drip line.

The first 2 or 3 years

Tree mortality is highest in the first months and years after transplanting. See the tips below to get your tree off to the right start.

  • Choose the right tree for the right site.
  • Plant properly.
  • Mulch properly - don't let mulch touch the tree.
  • Water properly - Water around the edge of the planting hole to encourage roots to reach for the water. Trees become established in 1 year for every 1 inch of tree caliper. In other words, a tree with a two-inch trunk will take 2 years to establish.
  • Remove stakes within a year - staking weakens trees.
  • Protect against deer until the leaves are out of reach.

When do trees need pruning?

For the health of the tree

  • Three-year-old trees may need limited structural pruning to direct growth.
  • Ragged tears of branches are pruned to create a wound more capable of healing.
  • "Health and maintenance" pruning (typically of 1.5-2" deadwood) does not improve tree health.

For human reasons

  • Some dead branches in some locations pose a hazard.
  • Branches sometimes get in our way. They should be cut just beyond the branch cuff, not further out - the tree can't heal wounds in random places.


The Nature of Oaks
Doug Tallamy

Tales of Sweetgrass & Trees: Robin Wall Kimmerer & Richard Powers with Terry Tempest Williams

Reading List:


  • Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard
  • The Heartbeat of Trees by Peter Wohllenben
  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohllenben
  • Native Trees for Northeast Landscapes: A Wild Seed Project Guide
  • The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees by Douglas W. Tallamy
  • The Tree Care Primer by Chris Roddick


  • The Overstory by Richard Powers


  • The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
  • The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
  • We Planted a Tree by Diane Muldrow illustrated by Bob Staake

Shade Tree Law:

Why are shade trees important?  Trees reduce storm runoff and the possibility of flooding. Dew and frost are less common under trees because less radiant energy is released from the soil in those areas at night. Trees improve air quality, conserve water, and harbor wildlife. They moderate the climate, improve air quality, and conserve water.

Massachusetts Shade Tree Law:

Section 1. All trees within a public way or on the boundaries thereof including trees planted in accordance with the provisions of section 7 shall be public shade trees; and when it appears in any proceeding in which the ownership of or rights in a tree are material to the issue, that, from the length of time or otherwise, the boundaries of the highway cannot be made certain by records or monuments, and that for that reason it is doubtful whether the tree is within the highway, it shall be taken to be within the highway and to be public property until the contrary is shown.

Section 7. Cities and towns may appropriate money for the purpose of acquiring and planting shade trees in public ways. The tree warden, or a private organization acting with the written consent of the tree warden, may plant shade trees acquired with public or private funds in a public way, or if he deems it expedient, upon adjoining land at a distance not exceeding 20 feet from the layout of such public way for the purpose of improving, protecting, shading or ornamenting the same; provided, however, that the written consent of the owner of such adjoining land shall first be obtained.

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