Neil Sperry

Now is the time to plant shade trees. Here’s how to choose the best one for your yard

One of the last free spaces in Fort Worth may not be free much longer

One of the most beautiful spots in Fort Worth, the Botanic Garden is broken down to the tune of $15 million. You're probably going to have to pay to get in soon, in order to keep it open.
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One of the most beautiful spots in Fort Worth, the Botanic Garden is broken down to the tune of $15 million. You're probably going to have to pay to get in soon, in order to keep it open.

Maybe it will come as news to many gardeners, but October is the very best month to buy and plant shade trees. Nursery associations have been touting it for decades: “Fall Is For Planting.” But too often we’ve cast it aside as some kind of marketing ploy. Fact is, it really is true.

Reasons fall plantings are better…

  • Trees (and shrubs) planted now have the longest possible time – 6 or 7 months – to establish new roots before the next bout with hot weather rolls into town. Spring plantings, by comparison, come just weeks before summer.

  • You can easily judge a tree’s vigor at this time of the year. It should still have most of its leaves and they should be full-, or nearly full-sized.

  • If it’s a container-grown tree, it has probably spent the entire growing season in the same pot. Its root system should be well developed and ready to jump out into its new home.

  • Many nurseries have sales going on as they reduce inventories before winter.

  • You, and those you hire to help you, probably have more time to complete your tasks now that you will in the spring.

Choosing the best tree…

Start by determining the type of tree that you’d like to plant. Of the several dozens of common types we grow in North Texas, you can boil the numbers down to fewer than 10 species of trees if you consider longevity, pest resistance, good looks and adaptability. Notice that I didn’t include “fast growth” in that list of criteria. It’s a terrible standard, because fast-growing trees have one or more fatal flaws.

So going for those more important considerations, your best choices in large trees include live oak, Shumard red oak, chinquapin oak and bur oak, also cedar elm, pecan and Chinese pistachio. I also include southern magnolia, although it is decidedly slower-growing than the others I listed. And I also include eastern redcedar junipers, the native evergreens from our North Texas hillsides, for those who are seeking evergreen screens.

Each of those species will need ample room to grow and develop to its full potential. All of them grow to be 40 feet tall or taller, and they mustn’t be crowded. If you have a smaller space and still want a high-quality shade tree, consider Little Gem dwarf southern magnolia or the still smaller Teddy Bear magnolia, golden raintree, redbud or Mexican plum.

Some of our large shrubs can actually be trained into very attractive small accenting trees. Although we don’t grow them as much for shade as we do for good looks, taller crape myrtles and yaupon and Nellie R. Stevens hollies trained tree-form are truly lovely. So are waxleaf ligustrums (but not the highly invasive Japanese ligustrums) and vitex.

Once you’ve determined the best type of tree for your needs you’re ready to start shopping. Full-service nurseries are likely to offer the very best selections. If you don’t find what you like at the first nursery, don’t be afraid to drive on – you and your new tree are going to be partners for many years. A few extra hours and miles spent in the search won’t seem like much 10 or 20 years later.

Your budget will determine how much you’re willing to spend on your new tree, but let me suggest that you go with a 10-gallon or larger tree. You get a larger root ball that way making it less likely that the tree will dry out in the summer.

If you want a larger tree for a more immediate impact, the nursery will probably offer a delivery and planting option. But whether you hire someone to plant the tree for you or do the job yourself, here are the general guidelines you’ll want to follow.

Dig the planting hole to the same depth as the soil ball. If you dig it any deeper the soil beneath your new tree will be soft. It will likely compact from the weight of the tree. It’s critical that the tree be planted at the same depth at which it was growing originally.

Use the soil left over from digging the hole and filling in around the root ball to form a berm that can act as a water reservoir as you irrigate the new tree for its first couple of years. Do not pile the extra soil up around the trunk as you so commonly see done in commercial plantings. If you have more soil than you need, remove it to another spot where you need a bit of fill soil.

Use the reservoir to water your new tree by hand for its first couple of years in its new home. Sprinkler irrigation will not be sufficient. And those water bags you see around tree trunks are expensive ways to do a poor job of watering.

Be sure your new tree is plumb in its setting. Once it begins to form new roots there is no way to straighten it if you didn’t do so initially. Stake and guy it to hold it vertically, and leave the cables in place for 18 to 24 months. Pad the trunk to prevent damage to the tree, and be sure to remove them before the tree starts to grow around them.

Wrap the trunks of new oaks and Chinese pistachios to protect against sunscald. Young trees of these species have very thin bark. They’ve been grown in nursery settings where they shaded one another, but when we plant them into the open in landscape settings they are suddenly exposed. Paper tree wraps from the nursery or hardware store will protect against the sunscald and subsequent borer invasion. This part of the planting process is, in my opinion, absolutely non-negotiable.

Neil Sperry hosts“Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: