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Selecting a tree for your landscape

By CATHY DUNN - Garden Club of Cape Coral | Nov 12, 2020

Trees are vital to our environment. As the largest plants on earth, they provide us with oxygen, store carbon, stabilize soil, conserve energy through shade and shelter wildlife. Trees are also a fundamental part of every community; our streets, parks and backyards are filled with trees that create a peaceful and welcoming environment. And trees are an integral part of creating a “sense of place;” what says Southwest Florida more eloquently than a beautiful royal palm tree?

Adding trees to your yard can not only enhance your existing landscape, but also help establish a theme or foundation for your home’s environment. While palm trees may be one of the first varieties to spring to mind, there are many other tropical and native trees that you can incorporate into your landscape. No matter what variety of tree you decide to plant, there are some important considerations to use in choosing the most appropriate tree for your situation.

My personal mantra for gardening is “The Right Plant in The Right Place.” This is particularly important when choosing a big-ticket landscape investment such as a tree. Trees thrive when they are matched to site conditions, and there are a few easy ways to aid you in evaluating your site. First, you can drive around your neighborhood to identify tree species that are growing well in similar sites in your area. You can also visit local public gardens and nurseries to discover different types of trees that are recommended for your area. Finally, there are vast resources in libraries and on the internet that can provide specific information about selecting and planting trees in your area.

The University of Florida has identified five components critical to choosing trees for a site: 1) Site attributes both above and below the ground 2) potential site modifications 3) tree maintenance capabilities. Once these components are explored and noted you can 4) choose desirable tree attributes and 5) select appropriate trees for the site.

Critical site attributes include factors such as the hardiness zone of the planting site; average annual rainfall; light exposure; soil pH; water drainage and available irrigation; soil texture and density. Site features such as swimming pools, buildings, driveways, curbs and sidewalks and overhead wires and lights will also influence your tree selection. Finally, you need to take into account the necessity and frequency of pruning and other maintenance.

Once you have determined the characteristics of your site, you can look for appropriate trees that will perform best in your setting. There are literally hundreds of tree varieties that will thrive in Southwest Florida. The University of Florida website provides data sheets with information on the growth habits, soil requirements and flowering/fruiting characteristics for 680 species of trees! The site also provides a tree selector tool that you can use to identify trees that meet your requirements.

Trees that are identified by the University of Florida as “standout selections” include familiar Southern standards such as the “D.D. Blanchard” magnolia and the “Cathedral” live oak. The “Natchez” crape myrtle is a beautiful summer blooming tree with spires of white flowers. There are also many native trees to consider including Florida elms, maples and pines, flowering dogwood, fringetrees, holly, gumbo-limbo, and redbuds.

Because planting trees in your landscape can be both challenging and expensive, you should minimize the risk of failure by making informed decisions on the optimal species for your garden. Fortunately, we can rely on the vast resources of the University of Florida website to assist us in making these decisions and identify the perfect tree for our site. You can find all the information you will need for your tree selection process at: https://hort.ifas.ufl.edu/ woody/index.shtml

Trees are an essential aspect of our environment that provide beauty to our landscape, clean air, shade, fruit, and habitats for wildlife and birds. When carefully selected, planted and maintained, trees can provide many years of enjoyment and enhancement in our landscape. While the selection process can seem daunting, we have an excellent online resource through the University of Florida to assist us in our decision-making. So, take the plunge and begin your tree selection process — I am confident that you will be rewarded for your efforts!

Cathy Dunn is a Lee County Master Gardener Volunteer and Garden Club of Cape Coral member.