How to avoid expensive mistakes in garden trees

Julia Atkinson-Dunn is the writer and creative behind Studio Home.

Moving into a new property and garden can be as exciting as it is overwhelming.

With little gardening experience, it’s easy to walk your inherited boundaries with an eye for a cleanup.

Gnarled mature trees can look untidy and pointless, especially when viewed in winter, and the urge to clear the section can be hard to resist.

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Over the years I have slowly drawn trees from the background of my interest to the front. My learning and understanding of how they fit into a garden setting has increased, largely due to the deep questioning I impose on those with experience.

I’ve learned from my own tree clearing, the ins and outs of losing privacy to gain sunlight, and have found a new love for multi-stem trees like Amelanchier and even my pruned camellia.

A few years ago I invited Chris Walsh, CEO of Treetech, to participate in a panel I chaired. I will never forget his first and most important piece of advice.

Want to get rid of that giant old tree?  That's fine, but wait a year before calling the chainsaws.

Julia Atkinson-Dunn/Delivered

Want to get rid of that giant old tree? That’s fine, but wait a year before calling the chainsaws.

When moving to a new property, he told homeowners to wait a year before cutting down trees. This delay allows one to see what the trees offer to the section throughout the seasons and gives a full understanding of the value of each in terms of privacy, shade and aesthetics.

Given the many years it takes for a tree to grow to a useful maturity, the knee-jerk reaction of removing it without understanding its benefits can lead to regret that only cost and patience can cure.

As we enter the prime time of year for planting trees, here are some more of his tips to help us all avoid costly mistakes.

Research and observe

Before you remove a tree, do some research and find out the names of each tree on your property. Discover their seasonal behavior, environmental needs, and eventual maturity level.

The ugly tree in the corner could also be blocking the direct view from your neighbor’s window. In winter it can be cold to the touch because of its threatening size, but in summer it can provide welcome shade for your home or garden.

Perhaps it has yet to feature a stunning display of spring blooms or fall colors? Or the tree’s shape could protect you from strong prevailing winds, and its removal could expose you or create a wind tunnel through those left behind. All in all, a little patience and study will help you avoid mistakes.

When you move house, will that tree you love to hate turn out to make an incredible spring or fall display?

Julia Atkinson-Dunn/Delivered

When you move house, will that tree you love to hate turn out to make an incredible spring or fall display?

How to select a new tree

Look for options that suit your space, preferred aesthetics, and shade needs. Personally, I found it a great advantage to ask the specialist staff at the garden center about this.

“I love Fagus sylvatica (copper beach) as a large section tree,” says Walsh. “The knot structure is dominant and the color is great.

“Acacia baileyana ‘Purpurea’ (Cootamundra Acacia) is a beautiful, fast growing tree for smaller sections with beautiful foliage and flowers. And you can’t beat a Sophora microphylla (Kōwhai) with its bright yellow flowers that attract native birds.”

When choosing a tree from a nursery, look for one with a good, strong trunk and a nice central trunk. You want a tree that is not root bound and clearly identified. While it’s tempting to buy trees on sale, it usually means they’re old stock or damaged, giving you a tough start.

A tūī in a kōwhai tree.  The native tree will attract birds if you have room for them in your yard.


A tūī in a kōwhai tree. The native tree will attract birds if you have room for them in your yard.

Before planting

Before you go down with the spade and plant a friendly looking young tree in your yard, you need to consider a number of factors.

Research the final height and span of your chosen tree to avoid the risk of introducing a monster into your small space. It’s equally important to consider its canopy and how it could invade your neighbors’ property or press against your border fence.

Is it evergreen or deciduous? Will it drop fruit and leaves over the fence or into your gutters?

Importantly, knowing exactly where wires such as power, fiber optic, phone, or water lines are located saves you from making more costly mistakes.

planting and maintenance

Once you have a healthy, strong specimen of your choice, prepare a hole as deep as the root ball with some crushed soil underneath. Make sure the hole is a further 30cm wider around the root ball and then fill it up with soil to allow a nice pit to grow.

After planting, protect the base of the tree with a nice layer of mulch about 5-10 cm deep and extending 60 cm above the trunk. Then drive in two strong stakes (without hitting the root ball) on either side and secure the trunk between them with a piece of tape. After a few years, when the tree has established its roots, these can be removed and the tree will continue to grow unsupported.

Over time, trees need pruning for health and structure. Consider hiring a NZARB approved contractor to prune the tree for the first 2 to 3 years to ensure the tree canopy is in the best shape to mature.

You can join Julia Atkinson-Dunn at @studiohomegardening or below

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