Larry Hodgson published thousands of articles and 65 books over the course of his career, in both French and English. His son, Mathieu, has made it his mission to make his father’s writings accessible to the public. This text was originally published in Le Soleil on August 8, 2001.
There’s something vital missing from landscaping: trees. There’s no denying that many grounds are beautifully laid out, with a beautiful lawn, attractive beds of shrubs, perennials and annuals, sometimes even a rockery and a fountain, and that’s all very well. But there’s one key element missing: the tree. The tree is the centerpiece of any landscape design. It helps to link heaven and earth, to anchor the landscape in its environment. It’s the final touch that makes the difference between a landscape that’s attractive, but nothing more, and one that’s truly striking. There are few landscapes that don’t need a tree, or even several, as a finishing touch.
In addition to beautifying, trees are practical. With its shade, it refreshes the land, even more so than a garden parasol. Not only does the tree cut out the sun, but its evaporation literally lowers the temperature by a few degrees. You need at least one tree on your property, if only to be able to sit in the cool of a heatwave!
But of all the living elements you incorporate into a landscape design, it’s the tree that requires the most attention to selection and placement. After all, if a perennial doesn’t suit your tastes, you can remove or relocate it in two minutes. You can’t move a tree that easily. Nor can you easily prune a tree if it’s getting too big. You have to choose exactly the right species for the site. And that takes planning.
You don’t buy a tree on a whim. You plan your purchase.
First, look at your land from all sides. It’s best to plant a tree a little to the side of the house, where it won’t block the view. It’s always a good idea to plant a deciduous tree on the south or west side of the house, because as it matures, it will cast shade over your home and help reduce air-conditioning costs in summer, while the falling leaves in winter allow the sun to heat the structure when you need it most.
Choosing the Right Tree
A coniferous tree (pine, spruce, etc.), on the other hand, is often placed on the north or northwest side of the house, as it cuts the winter wind and saves a lot on heating costs. And there are obstacles to consider. A telephone or power line that seems so far away at the time of planting will soon be in the way as the tree grows. To avoid having to either cut the tree or subject it to barbaric, uneven pruning to clear only the wires, plant any large tree away from the wires. You can, however, use small trees in certain places (those that won’t exceed 7 m or 20 feet in height).
So much for height, but you should also consider the possible diameter of your selection. You don’t want it rubbing against the house or sticking out over your pool (otherwise, the birds will make a point of leaving lots of little presents in the water).
There are a few upright trees, such as fastigiated English oak (Quercus robur ‘Fastigiata’, zone 4b, 5-6 USDA) or columnar crabapples, that can be used in cramped spaces, but most trees will require almost as much horizontal space as vertical. Once you’ve got an idea of the possible proportions, it’s time to look at the other attractions. Do you want an evergreen (in our climate, necessarily a conifer) or a deciduous tree? Green foliage (easier to arrange in a landscape) or colored foliage (especially purple foliage, which is very difficult to accommodate; gold and silver shades are easier).
Something for Everyone
Does it bear beautiful flowers? Colorful fruit? And do you even want fruit, knowing that one day it will fall and you’ll have to pick it up? Are you looking for dense or light shade? A tree that will plug a hole in the ground (prefer one whose branches start at ground level) or one that will be mostly aerial, with branches starting high on the trunk, allowing you to use the ground at its foot for something else?
Now look at the other aspect: what conditions can you offer the tree? Is your soil rich or poor? Loamy, rocky or sandy? Dry, damp or well-drained? Sunny or shady? Whatever the combination of conditions, there’s always a wide choice of species to suit.
And it’s easier to choose trees that suit your conditions than to try to change the conditions in your yard!
Buying a Tree
You now have a picture in your mind of the ideal tree: such and such dimensions, no major defects, etc. Go and see a local tree nursery so that they can recommend a few suitable trees: there are literally hundreds to choose from!
Beware of large-calibre trees! First of all, they look great in the nursery, but are difficult to plant because of the enormity of their root ball, and often take several years to acclimatize. It’s often better to buy a young specimen of the same species. Not only will it often cost much less, but young trees quickly acclimatize to new locations and often outgrow the “big boys” in just a year or two!
These days, trees are generally sold in pots, so you can plant them at any time of year when the ground isn’t frozen. So, essentially, you can plant them whenever you like.
But how do you plant them? Dig a hole the same depth as the root ball (never deeper, otherwise the tree will tend to lean as the soil settles) and two or three times as wide. Remove the pot (it’s often easier to cut it off). Pull on the roots on the outside of the pot, the ones that go round and round, to direct them in all directions.
Now fill the hole halfway with the soil you’ve removed, tamp well with your foot, then water once to reach the roots in the lower half of the root ball. Fill the hole completely, then tamp and water again.
Applying a good layer of mulch (at least 7 cm) ensures better recovery.
Soil Tips for Planting
You’ll notice that I don’t recommend improving the soil at planting. More and more studies are showing that, for trees and shrubs at least, it’s best to plant them in the soil they’re to be planted in, without any addition of good soil, compost, etc.If your soil is already naturally rich, there’s no danger in doing so, but in inferior soil, you’ll create a “vat” of good soil in which the roots tend to crowd, preventing the tree from developing the roots that run far and wide, as they should. If the soil is of equal quality everywhere, the tree will produce long roots that will anchor it more firmly.
(Think your soil is too poor to plant a tree? Then improve the soil EVERYWHERE, not just at the foot of the tree, even if it means bringing in a few truckloads of good soil).
There’s also no need to prune a tree at planting, or to remove its leader (tip), except to prune back to a healthy branch any twig broken during planting. The idea that you have to prune a tree at planting to strengthen it is still an old myth that’s best forgotten.
DO NOT lay turf right up to the base of the tree! This will encourage you to get too close to the trunk with a lawnmower or trimmer. NEVER let a tool hit the trunk, otherwise you’ll cause small wounds, often invisible to the naked eye, which can strip the bark and cause the tree to wither. Instead, a slice of ornamental mulch at the base of the tree will prevent weeds from growing, without the need for mowing.
The first year: water as needed to keep the soil slightly moist at all times.
The second year: don’t water your tree more than other well-established plants on your property.
After four or five years: for larger trees, you can start removing some of the lower branches to “raise the top”: this will allow you to walk around the property without banging your head!
And that’s it! Having a beautiful tree on your property that will last a lifetime isn’t all that complicated: it’s just a question of choosing the right tree for your needs… and the needs of your property.