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Planting the Right Shade Tree

Remember last summer's long run of days with triple-digit temperatures? Did you wish for a nice big shade tree? Or vow to plant one? Well, now is the season, and some great shade trees will grow in Southern Oregon gardens.

"Red maples (Acer rubrum) are my favorite for size, beauty and fall color," says John Door, manager of Jake's Nursery in Eagle Point. He recommends 'October Glory,' 'Autumn Flame,' 'Autumn Blaze' and Red Sunset.' They are well suited to our high temperatures and once established, can grow up to 5 feet a year to 40 feet or more with a 20-foot spread.

Landscape designer Mike Minder adds another maple, 'Pacific Sunset,' and Chinese pistache (Pistachia chinensis), and Raywood ash (Fraxinus oxycarpa). And although oaks are normally thought of as slow growing, Minder says red oak (Quercus rubra) and scarlet oak (Q. coccinea) are fast growers, reaching 60 to 80 feet high. Unlike most native oaks, which cannot tolerate watering, red and scarlet oaks are fine to garden under, although they do drop acorns.

Not all shade trees need to be red. Door likes the colorful 'Purple Robe' locust that features pendulous purple flowers in spring and green foliage that turns yellow in autumn. The white-barked birch (Betula jacquemontii), may be a better fit for smaller yards. A taller, narrower tree, it grows slowly to 60 feet.

A former shade tree favorite, fruitless mulberry, may be short-lived, weak-limbed and overwhelm smaller yards. Cottonwood, willow and poplar have invasive roots, especially near water lines, and others like catalpas are messy and drop debris.

Minder warns not to "overbuy" the tree; that is, don't buy too large a tree to plant. He says a very large potted tree is out of balance with its root system and it will take several years for the roots to catch up enough to support any additional growth above. A tree with a balanced canopy and root ball should have a 1 ½ inch caliper (the diameter of the trunk 12 inches above the ground) and, depending on the species, be approximately 15 feet tall.

Good drainage is a must for these trees to grow large and stay healthy. If you have heavy clay soil, Door suggests digging a hole 18 inches square and 18 inches deep. Fill it with water and check after three to five hours. If water is still standing in the hole, you will need to build a berm to plant the tree above ground level. In soil with good drainage, plant the tree with the top of the rootball 1 ½ to 2 inches above the surrounding soil level. "Mulch is always a good idea," he adds, "as it keeps weeds down, slows down evaporation and keeps roots cool."

Don't forget how large these trees will grow and don't plant them any closer than 20 feet from the house or any other structures. If you want your shade tree to contribute to cooling your home, a southwest planting location will give you the best results.

Newly planted trees will need to be watered for their first three to five seasons and not just from the lawn sprinkler. Door recommends two good soakings a week from May to October. Let the hose run at a trickle for two to three hours or use a moisture meter, says Minder. Trees planted in lawns won't be hurt by supplemental lawn sprinkling, but need water deep to their roots. After five years, they will be fine with seasonal rain.

Chosen wisely and planted correctly, in three to five years your tree should provide enough shade for you to sit under and enjoy your lemonade in even the hottest temperatures.