In the Company of Trees

Landscape design

Stately maples, towering pines and sturdy oaks are valuable assets for the Atlanta homeowner. They provide shade and beauty while offering cool spots to relax and play in the yard. Fragrant spring blossoms and vibrant fall foliage can also brighten up an otherwise dark corner of the landscape. Trees do so much for our outdoor life – and making the right choice is the first step in ensuring a healthy yard full of gorgeous trees. From when to plant to how to choose a responsible arborist, here’s a primer on all things tree.

Growing on You
Choosing the right tree is the first step in figuring out what you’re trying to accomplish. “You cannot go wrong by consulting the Georgia Gold Medal Plants list,” says Mary Kay Woodworth, executive director of Georgia Urban Ag Council. “These plants are selected annually to be proven winners for Georgia’s climate, soils and disease/pest resistance.” 

Popular species include:
American Hornbeam – A great alternative to the Bradford Pear, the American Hornbeam has a broad, oval growth habit and can reach 30 to 40 feet high and 30 feet wide when mature. Dense foliage casts cooling shade in summer, then turns a lively shade of yellow or orange in autumn to brighten the landscape. This tree is sometimes called “Ironwood” because of its very hard wood and dark red twigs.

Bald Cypress – A Native American tree with a wide growing range, the Bald Cypress is a common wetland plant and a deciduous conifer. This tree can reach 70 feet or more at maturity. (So it is best used in large, open spaces.) Its soft-textured, flat needles transform from yellow-green in spring, to bright green in summer turning to bronze-orange in fall.

Chastetree – A heat-tolerant and cold-hardy tree, the Chastetree also has great pest resistance and excellent drought tolerance. Often known as summer lilac, it flowers in May and June with minimum maintenance requirements. Flowers may be blue, lavender, pink or white. Chastetree grows 15 to 20 feet tall with an equal spread.

Little Gem Magnolia – A classically Southern tree, Little Gem Magnolia is smaller than its native parent, reaching a height of 15 to 20 feet in maturity with a 10 foot width. Leaves are four to six inches long and dark glossy green. Its fragrant flowers bloom in summer through early fall.

Overcup Oak – Typically growing 50 feet high and 50 feet wide, the Overcup Oak grows more quickly compared to most oaks and is better suited for large landscapes. Its name is derived from the unique shape of its acorns and is similar to the white oak in many ways, including its rough-textured, gray-brown bark and yellow color in autumn. “If you want to create a natural area in the back of your yard to reduce maintenance, then you want to go with native canopy trees that can fill in to help bring back more of the natural woodland, like an oak,” says Eric King, principal, King Landscaping in Atlanta.

Trident Maple – Introduced from China in 1890, the Trident Maple is an excellent small shade tree that brings vibrant colors in the fall. “It’s a nice size for a residential home,” King says. “It’s not as big as a red maple, but it’s bigger than a japanese maple so it doesn’t dwarf a house and make it feel small.”

Now that you have a sense of which trees go where, consider the characteristics of your yard. “Is it already shady?” asks King. “Then you’ll probably want a tree that will grow in shade like a dogwood or a redbud; if there’s a lot of sun then you’ll want a tree that thrives in a sunny condition like a crepe myrtle or a flowering magnolia. If your yard is very wet (near a creek or river) you might want a tree that likes wet conditions, like a river birch or a red maple.”

Trees do more than just spruce up your landscape. If lots of shade is what you seek, trees can provide a cooling effect and offer environmental benefits when strategically placed. They can minimize air pollution, improve soil and water quality and increase curb appeal. (All while reducing energy use by up to 30 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.) Shade trees are vital to our environment for several reasons—one of these being the shade that they provide. “Humans and animals both need the shade to protect from the damaging exposure of prolonged direct sun,” says Dixie Speck, President of Solterra Landscape in Atlanta. “The shade also helps to keep a structure, such as a home or office building, cooler. It also protects from the exterior damage caused by direct sun exposure. The best shade trees are the ones that grow large and quickly so that their shading benefits can be experienced sooner than later…and ones that have a long lifespan.”

Mark Livingstone, Senior Consulting Arborist at Arborguard Tree Specialists, advises: “With a shady yard, you want to go with an understory tree or an ornamental. Dogwoods love to be underneath large trees that will provide them shade, as well as some maples varieties. If you have a large spacious yard with plenty of sunlight, then you may want to go with an evergreen or an oak. Look for locations to plant dominant trees where they can shade plants that are receiving too much sun, or shade your home or patio.”

Digging in
The best time to plant trees is in the fall once temperatures have cooled down to around the sixties or lower at night. Trees can also be planted during the winter. When planting any tree, the holes should be dug approximately twice the size of the root ball or container to give the roots room to grow. It is not a bad idea to put rock in the bottom of the holes to allow for water to drain from the roots. Some trees, although they love water, do not like to sit in it.

Trees need regular, deep watering (by rain or irrigation or hand-watering) just like any other plant, especially during the first two years of establishment. “If planting during the heat of the spring or summer, watering is needed every day for the initial two to three weeks following planting,” Speck says. Keep approximately three inches of natural mulch over the root zone of trees to conserve moisture and insulate the roots from temperature extremes. Be careful not to apply more than three inches of mulch. This can suffocate the tree. Fertilize at least once per year and consult your local nursery for plant-specific requirements.

Whether you’re pruning for aesthetic reasons, to thin the canopy of your yard or just to make the tree better, choose an arborist or a tree company who knows how to prune without damaging the tree. If you choose to do it yourself you can find good resources through University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension service*. Keep trees trimmed regularly to help lessen the weight of the branches and to prevent drooping. Trimming will also help maintain the shape of the tree. “Generally if you’re cutting to remove a limb completely, you want to cut it back close to the trunk but leave a little circle of growth, called the collar,” says King. “Don’t remove more than 20 percent of the canopy at any one time.” Staking trees can prevent them from blowing over in a heavy wind and helps train them to grow.

Down with disease
To identify diseases, first figure out what type of tree you’re dealing with and work backward from any symptoms that appear. “There’s a cool app out there called Leafsnap where you can take a picture of a leaf and it will help you identify what type of tree it is,” says King. Start by looking at any changes to either the bark or the leaves over past years. Trees naturally have some pests that are part of their life cycle and don’t negatively impact the tree other than cosmetically, like oakworms and galls, but if you don’t really notice it and it’s not severely affecting the tree then it’s best to let it go. Other pests might require treatment, like mushrooms on the trunk. If you see those growing, then it’s probably time to call an arborist to come out and take a look.

Branching out
Trees need regular check-ups, just like people. Don’t wait until a tree dies to call an arborist. “If something is not quite right, or you notice a difference in the plant that you haven’t seen before,” says Livingstone, “it’s time to have someone come out and diagnose the situation. You have a much better chance of saving the plant the quicker you let an expert know. Most homeowners wait until there are obvious signs of a problem and by then there is little that can be done.”

Tree Do’s
Do design and place trees with mature growth size in mind, allowing room for canopy and roots to spread. “The biggest mistake that homeowners make is to select a tree that, when mature, will be too large for the site and is planted too close to the house,” Woodworth says.

Do be aware of roof lines, power lines, concrete patios and walkways. Large trees with invasive root structures can damage building foundations, paving, plumbing and drainage systems. An improperly placed tree can result in costly long-term maintenance and repair situations that may outweigh the energy efficiency gains.

Do use a diversity of trees instead of one or two varieties—it’s not only better for the eco-system and the animals that rely on what the tree produces, but it also reduces the chance of one pest killing all the same type of tree.

As far as trees are concerned, the sky’s the limit, says Woodworth. “There is a tree that can fit any size landscape or courtyard garden. Once planted, watered regularly and pruned as needed, maintenance is minimal.” 


Atlanta tree ordinances and other helpful links

Each city and county has its own tree laws and ordinances. Visit city and county websites for current information, particularly if you are considering removing a tree. Depending on the location, there are strict guidelines in place for removal and necessary replanting. The Georgia Urban Forest Council* serves as a comprehensive resource for homeowners interested in specific tree ordinances across the state of Georgia: 

• Georgia Urban Forest Council:

• City of Atlanta:

• Cobb County:

• DeKalb County:

• Douglas County:

• Fulton County:

• Gwinnett County:

* Here are direct links to earlier references in this article:

• Georgia Gold Medal Plants list:

• University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension service:

• International Society of Arboriculture:

• Georgia Arborist Association:

• Georgia Urban Ag Council:

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