A tree for Arbor Day

Eastern redbud - flower_8006/Flickr

Eastern redbud - flower_8006/Flickr

Everyone has his or her favorite eye candy as spring paints the world anew in living color. To me, there’s nothing more glorious than the season’s flowering trees, with their lovely extravagance of bloom. Give me a bouquet the size of a small cottage and I’m happy.

At their peak all too briefly, the redbuds and dogwoods, magnolias and crab apples are heart-stoppingly beautiful while the flowers last. The Japanese have made a national fetish of cherry blossom viewing, seeing in their ephemeral display the sweet poignancy of fragile life.

We don’t do too badly here in New Jersey, with cherry tree displays in Newark's Branch Brook Park and Cherry Hill, but it’s even nicer to do spring blossom viewing at home.

Imagine the view through a window framed in cherry blossoms, or a patio ringed with redbuds or overhung by silver bells. Think of stopping traffic with a mature magnolia abloom in the front yard. If there’s room, borrow the French idea of an allée and plant a double file of crab apples along a pathway. Here’s a promise: Any one of these landscape features will make you sigh with pleasure — and of how many things is that reliably true?

Indulge your preferences when choosing a tree, but give careful consideration to siting what will be a permanent feature of the landscape. Know how tall that little sapling is destined to grow. Don’t plant a tree that will reach more than about 20 feet under utility lines and don’t plant too close to foundations or walkways.

The key to success is matching tree and site conditions — soil, light exposure, air circulation. A little research is a good thing. And no matter how certain you may be about the location of underground utilities, such as water and gas lines, call before you dig for a free mark out. It’s not only smart, it’s the law. Call 811 or (800) 272-1000.

Once you have your tree in hand, get it off to a good start with proper planting techniques. Don’t move young saplings around by their trunks; use a hand truck under the burlap ball or container to avoid damage. Dig a hole that’s broad, but no deeper than the root ball of your specimen. You don’t want to bury the soil line that should be obvious on the trunk.

Don’t bother with soil amendments. The latest word from plant experts is that it’s better to backfill with the original soil rather than to create a pocket of nutrient-rich soil. Hold the fertilizer, too. It can burn roots if placed in the planting hole. Wait until the tree shows new growth, then spread some all-purpose fertilizer around the tree and rake it in.

Staking also is unnecessary, except on steep slopes or in windy locations. The movement caused by moderate winds actually strengthens the trunk. If you do stake, use a wide band of flexible material, not wire or rope that can cut through bark and invite infection. Stakes and other supports should not remain in place for more than a year.

For more tips on planting and tree care, visit the website of the International Society of Arboriculture at treesaregood.com. Trees are good, and you should plant some.

Silverbell - Suzanne Cadwell/Flickr 

Silverbell - Suzanne Cadwell/Flickr 

Small trees to plant in spring

Smaller properties call for trees of modest size and many spring-flowering species fit the bill. The favorites mentioned here rarely grow larger than 25 to 30 feet and some remain half that size, making them ideal for planting near patios, as specimen trees in front yards or as accents near the house.

Cherry (Prunus varieties): Ornamental cherries offer a compact rounded or weeping habit, glossy bark and a spectacular bounty of spring flowers. Displays in Washington, D.C., the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Newark's Branch Brook Park are a highlight of the season.

Crab apple (Malus varieties): A tough constitution and profuse spring bloom make crab apples a popular choice. Select varieties with small fruits that are attractive to birds and you’ll have a wildlife show, too.

Dogwood (Cornus varieties): Our beloved native species, Cornus florida has white or pink blossoms and good fall color, but is subject to several diseases. Other choices include new Stellar varieties developed by Rutgers for vigor and disease resistance and Cornus kousa, an Asian species that blooms in early summer.

Magnolia: Breathtaking in bloom, Magnolia soulangeana (saucer magnolia) offers large, chalice-shaped flowers — pink-tinged white is most common, but yellow, rose and even deep maroon varieties are available. The star magnolia, Magnolia stellata, blooms early on bare branches.

Redbud (Cercis varieties): Magenta flowers appear on every branch before leaves emerge in spring. Less common are types with white or rosy pink blossoms. Other new varieties have purple or chartreuse foliage, adding interest all year.

Silverbell: The Carolina silverbell, Halesia carolina, is another lovely native tree. Bell-shaped blossoms appear in profusion in April. This tree is ideally situated in a spot where it can be appreciated from below, overhanging a patio or garden bench. Disease-free, it also has good yellow fall color.


Commenting procedures have been improved by Squarespace, my web host. You should be able to simply enter a name (any name) before commenting. Please let me know if this is working better. I welcome your comments and feedback. -- Valerie