Tree Terms

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

February 20, 2009 5 min read


Pick the best arbor for you -- and your neighbors

Vicky Katz Whitaker

Creators News Service

If you're a homeowner looking for a little shade, a bit of privacy or both, planting a tree may be your answer.

Then again, maybe not -- if you want to stay on good terms with your neighbors.

Some trees are extremely prone to storm and ice damage, their limbs or trunks downing utility lines or crashing through house and car roofs. Others gravitate to water sources, wrapping their roots around underground sprinkler systems or swimming pools. Sidewalks, driveways, and patios are not immune to trees with aggressive root systems, nor are native species that can be crowded out of their natural habitat.

Some fruit bearing trees, like the Sweetgum, can scatter spiky balls across your yard or adjacent properties. "Sweetgum can be a pain. They're unpleasant to look at and can be slippery to walk on. And you certainly don't want them underfoot if you've got kids running around without shoes. Ouch!" exclaimed landscape management and design expert Mary Boyle, horticulturist for the Henry Schmieder Arboretum in Doylestown, Penn.

Boyle, a member of the International Society of Arboriculture, recommended that homeowners avoid trees that produce undesirable fruits like the Sweetgum, instead choosing its fruitless variety. Fortunately, there also are many small ornamental trees that make great choices for a homeowner's yard.

"If you have a shadier location, try a flowering dogwood," she said. "Japanese snowbells are also an underused tree. For winter interest, look into the small witch hazel tree. It blooms yellow, orange, or red varieties in the dead of winter." The tree can be found from Nova Scotia south to Florida and eastern Texas.

However, each garden is unique. "There's a saying among growers: right plant, right place. You need to determine what space you have to offer a tree that it can grow to its best potential. If you have a large property, you may be able to accommodate those large shade trees like oaks and maples. But if you have a smaller lot, you'll need to consider smaller trees or trees that are more upright in shape," Boyle said.

Sometimes, neighbors may not like the trees. "All trees are neighbor-friendly, but are all neighbors tree-friendly? That is the real question," said Mark Rosen, president of Tree Canada, a nonprofit organization that encourages Canadians to plant and care for trees.

Rosen said there are many myths about the "damaging nature of trees" from sources such as roots, leaves, needles and branches, but "the truth is a world without trees is more damaging than one with trees."

Rosen said most people who dislike trees complain about:

* Messy leaves

* Fruits that attract bees or rot

* Roots that break foundations, clog sewers, drains and septic beds

* Branches that can fall on a home or car

* Unwanted shade on a swimming pool.

Most complaints are resolvable -- such as planting conifers that have no leaves or non-fruiting varieties, rerouting roof drainage to the lawn, making sure sewers and drains don't leak, planting trees away from septic beds and careful pruning.

However, if you're bent on putting in a tree your neighbors will hate, where should it go? "The best placement may be toward the center of the back lawn, where it is less noticeable from the street with a distance from property lines so that seed pods are less likely to find their way next door," said John Marshall, manager of the Scotts Training Institute, an arm of the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company in Ohio.

Learn about a tree's growth habits before purchasing, he said, including size, branch spread, zonal preferences and fruit and/or seed production. "Keep in mind that planting a tree is a decades long investment, since a tree's lifecycle may span 20, 30, 50 or more years."

Check with your local municipality or power company for regional planting advice. Many, such as Florida Light and Power and the Long Island Power Authority in New York, offer online guidance for selecting and placing trees that are the least likely to bring down overhead utility lines in severe weather conditions as hurricanes and blizzards.

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