Neil Sperry

How to choose, plant and nurture your shade trees

Want to plant a garden but aren’t trying to rip up your whole yard at once? Try this strategy

Learn a simple, add-as-you-go strategy for building a backyard oasis.
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Learn a simple, add-as-you-go strategy for building a backyard oasis.

Carefully chosen and strategically planted shade trees, if they’re of the best species, will add thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars in value to a Texas home. Simply put, shade sells! It stands to reason, then, that you should maximize your return on the dollars you spend.

When can you plant new trees?

Landscape contractors plant trees all year long. Fall is an outstanding time, but you can certainly take advantage of end-of-spring sales right now. Transport your new trees home carefully. Wrap their tops to protect the foliage from highway winds. Plant them as soon as you’re home, and resolve to water them thoroughly several times weekly all summer long.

Start with the best

These are some of your very best options in large shade trees for North Texas landscapes. I always list seven. Four are oaks (live oak, Shumard red oak, chinquapin oak and bur oak). They and two others are native here (also including pecans and cedar elms). You might also consider Chinese pistachios. If I need a large pyramidal evergreen I recommend eastern redcedar juniper. If a person doesn’t mind slower growth I suggest southern magnolia. And for smaller trees at maturity, my list would include Little Gem or Teddy Bear dwarf magnolias, golden raintree, Mexican plum or redbud.

Buy from a reputable nursery that has trees at all months of the year (instead of a national chain store that has a significant garden department for only a few months each spring).

Choose the best location

The first shade tree in your landscape will add the most value. The second one will add slightly less. By the time you add several more you may actually see diminishing returns on your investments because they will grow to crowd into one another.

Position your new tree carefully. It should not be in the exact center of its space in the garden. Don’t align it with other trees up and down the block or with neighbors’ fences. Let it appear to have been planted by the random hand of Nature. Your landscape will appear much more relaxed if you do.

Set the new tree at the same depth at which it was growing in its container. Use the extra soil left over from digging the hole to create a bowl around it. That will facilitate watering it by hand for its first year or two in your landscape. Sprinkler irrigation alone will not be enough. Soak it deeply every two or three days through its first growing season.

Stake your new tree to hold it absolutely plumb. Keep the guy wires taut, and pad the trunk so they won’t wear through its bark. The wires should be halfway up the trunk for the best anchoring. Remove the wires when the tree’s roots are secure enough to hold it upright without staking. Be sure not to leave wires in place long enough that they could girdle the trunk, that is, that the trunk could begin to grow around the wires and cut off the flow of manufactured sugars from the leaves back down to the roots through the outer tissues of the trunk.

One of the most critical tasks is frequently overlooked. Protect the trunk with paper tree wrap for the first 18-24 months to prevent sunscald and subsequent borer invasion. New trees are especially vulnerable because their thin, new bark hasn’t been out in the sun while they were being produced pot-to-pot in the nursery.

Thin-barked trees such as Shumard red oaks, chinquapin oaks, Chinese pistachios and maples are frequently killed by sunscald on their south or west sides when they’re planted and not protected. The sad part is that it happens after two or three years, long after any warranty of the new tree has expired. A few dollars of paper tree wrap and two minutes to apply it would be all it would have taken to protect them.

When it comes time for professional care

You’ve invested years in growing your trees. They’re almost mature, and they’re beautiful. They’ve become the investments you had hoped that they would. How do you find a suitable tree service company to nurture them into the future?

Ask for referrals from neighbors with fine landscapes. The simple question might be, “Who does your tree work?” Ask owners and managers of independent retail garden centers, preferably Texas Master Certified Nursery Professionals. They’ll know who the best companies are.

Pay attention to which crews are in your neighborhood and watch how carefully they’re doing their jobs. Look at the equipment they’re using. Check their websites for the professional achievements of their employees.

You’ll want an International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist on site as your work is being done. That man or woman has passed the exams to prove he or she is well versed in proper care of landscape trees. Your trees deserve that professionalism.

As best you’re able, look for the company’s safety practices. Read about their credentials, leadership and awards online. Some of it will be on their website, but you’ll also find stories written about the good companies and work that they’ve done within their communities. Many of them are going to be locally owned businesses, not national institutions with branch offices. The good companies give back to make their communities better. Trees are a great place to start.

You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons 1-3 pm and on WBAP 820AM Sunday mornings 8-10 am. Join him at and follow him on Facebook.

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