“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”
Our farm had been mostly abandoned for a number of years prior to our purchase, and even with three years of hard work, there is always more to be done. One task that we try to accomplish every year is to plant more trees – although we did opt out this year because we knew that water would be in such short supply. We still have trees to care for, of course, and if this drought cycle ever eases (looking unlikely, in all honesty) we’ll definitely plant more trees. Every project we choose is focused on improving our land, for us and for the future.
Our Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) saplings, ready for planting.
Trees are an incredible weapon against the climate crisis, yet we don’t call them into service nearly often enough. Any homeowner knows how valuable trees are in keeping houses cool in summer, and many cities have started planting trees in public spaces as a natural heat sink against all that concrete. With so many new housing developments cropping up, however, trees are mowed down and then halfheartedly planted again as an afterthought, and often left to wither and die without proper care. And of course it takes years, if not decades, for the shade canopy to grow. Healthy, mature trees are a valuable asset to any property; we’re working hard to save the ones we have and add as many more as possible.
Planting our Eastern red cedar windbreak along the southern line of our game fence.
One of the very best things we’ve discovered since moving to the farm is the CSU Seedling Tree Program. This is a joint project of the Colorado Forest Service and Colorado State University, and it provides seedling trees, bushes and other perennials to homeowners at an exceptionally low cost. We’ve used the program twice now with great success, and will definitely participate again. The only downside is that many of the tiny seedlings are sold in packs of 25 or 30 – meaning you either need a lot of land, or you need to make share arrangements with friends and neighbors. It’s also essential to plan in advance, as the sale opens in November (trees arrive the following May) and plants sell out quickly.
A damaged garden hose makes great drip line!
The biggest advantage to purchasing plants from this state program is that everything is grown in Colorado, meaning it will likely survive our harsh conditions if properly cared for. Additionally, there is a helpful information sheet that shows which plants will grow best where; some are suitable for up to seven thousand feet – perfect for us! – and some can tolerate the higher mountain elevations. The program also provides planting guides and lots of other useful tips to keep the trees healthy.
One of our Nanking cherry trees, heavily mulched with an alpaca fleece blanket.
Quality trees are expensive. They’re rightfully expensive because they took a lot of labor and care and investment to grow. Many people don’t realize that while big-box stores might be cheap, they’re not necessarily going to sell plants suitable for that particular area; those national purchasing decisions are made months, if not years, in advance, by some corporate executive at the head office in some vague place a thousand miles and many weather patterns away from Colorado’s arid high-plains desert. If you’re spending good money on trees, it makes sense to choose trees that are appropriate for your space. Figure out where you want to plant – is it sunny? Shaded? What sort of soil? What’s the elevation? Do you want a deciduous option? Is there good drainage? Will it impact overhead wires? Near sewer lines? Once you’ve got the site narrowed down, do some research about your hardiness zone and what might suit your needs. Go to a reputable local nursery that knows what works in your climate, not some impersonal big-box store looking to offload ten thousand Meyer lemon trees because they didn’t sell in Arizona.
We caged the saplings to protect them; somehow, this one was missed when we removed the cages. It has since been freed and is growing nicely.
Once you’ve chosen your trees, make sure you know how and when to plant them. Here, we can plant some things in spring and others in fall, and it makes a big difference for the tree’s long-term success. Follow the planting instructions from the nursery, if they’re trustworthy; you can also check with your local Extension office. (Pro tip: when you know you have trees arriving, prepare your planting holes well in advance so that you can plant your trees as soon as possible. It rarely benefits a tree to keep it in its pot for any longer than necessary.) Make sure your spacing and placement account for the tree’s eventual canopy spread and possible interference with overhead obstructions.
We think some of our fruit trees have an aphid infestation; the presence of ladybugs is a good sign that nature is usually capable of defending itself if left alone.
One of the biggest mistakes people make in Colorado is not to water in seedlings thoroughly in the first year, or during dry winters. Especially in this climate, little saplings will often suffer from severe transplant shock and will need far more water than you might think. If your land isn’t set up with drip irrigation or some other similar system, it’s imperative that you figure out how those tiny trees will get the water they need. Although our orchard is on drip, many of our other trees are watered by hand, and especially this year we’re giving them a deep soak with every week’s irrigation run. Those roots will never establish properly if the tree is drought-stricken in its first year.
We’ve lopped the crowns off some of our struggling mature trees; most are showing growth again at the base.
Many homeowners think that it would be great fun to plant fruit trees for fresh, homegrown fruit, but be aware that fruit trees have their own set of challenges. The Front Range is particularly harsh on fruit trees because of the dramatic diurnal temperature swings; the main reason Colorado’s fruit industry is centered on the Western Slope is because we rarely experience those. (With the obvious exception of last October’s horrible freeze, which is why we have no local fruit this year.) And if your trees do bear fruit, they’ll bring pests (wasps! deer!) along with them. The majority of our fruit trees are outside our game fence, and we know that expanding that fence will be something we’ll need to tackle sooner rather than later if we ever want to harvest our own plums and Nanking cherries.
We didn’t think our Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) survived the winter, but it is thriving!
There is a perfect tree for every situation, but it might take a bit of effort on your part to figure out exactly what that tree is. Trees add so much intrinsic beauty and value to our world that it’s our responsibility to plant them wherever we can. If possible, dear friends, please consider planting trees where you live, work and play. We don’t plant trees for ourselves, we plant trees for future generations – and since we have rather a lot to apologize for, planting a few trees seems to be the least we can do.
P.S. If you’re not familiar with the title reference, it’s paraphrased from this classic, which was first released in 1971 and was well ahead of its time. It was banned in a California school district in 1989 because it was thought that it would “turn children against the logging industry.” Maybe it was the devastating and rapacious clearcutting of old-growth forests that actually turned people against the logging industry, and not a silly children’s book?