By Kathleen Ferris
The wrong tree in a desert yard can get ugly fast. Then, too, if the right tree is not correctly planted, nurtured or maintained it can die, grow in tortured directions, or fall over in a hard wind. Starting over can be expensive, but who wants a yard without trees?
Trees cool your home by shading windows and exposed walls. Trees provide children and pets with shady places to play and keep the sun off your patio and barbecue area. Trees also provide shelter for other plants in your yard, including succulents and even cactus, which can yellow from too much direct summer sun.
It’s not hard to grow a tree in a desert yard. It’s just different from growing a tree in Oregon, Colorado, or Pennsylvania. Here are five things to know before planting.
1.) Plan: Know what you want before heading to a nursery. There are plenty of desert-adapted trees that will thrive in your yard. Want to know what a tree will look like as it grows and when it matures? Many cities have demonstration gardens where homeowners can learn about a variety of trees before selecting. For example, the Tree Trail at the Glendale Main Library is designed to introduce homeowners to smaller desert-adapted trees for small yards and spaces. The Tree Trail also has a variety of large shrubs that grow faster than trees, are easier to maintain, and still offer the shade and drama of a tree.
2.) Buy Healthy: Buy a tree in at least a 15-gallon container. Avoid a tree if the roots are growing out of the holes on the bottom of the container. That indicates that a tree has been in the container too long and its roots are wrapping around each other. Also look for a tree with even branching or symmetry. Tight nursery stakes can inhibit the growth on one side of a tree.
3.) Plant Right: Don’t plant a tree too deep. Keep the lower, bell-shaped part of the trunk above ground. Use native dirt without mulch to back fill the planting hole. Mulch disappears quickly in desert soil. When mulch disappears it leaves gaps around the roots of a tree. Instead, put a layer of mulch on top of the soil to hold moisture. Only stake a tree when needed and then avoid staking a tree too tightly. A trunk needs to move in the wind to grow strong.
4.) Maintain: Trees need to be deeply and slowly watered at the edge of their canopies. If you use drip line emitters, move them away from the trunk as your tree’s canopy grows. If you plant a tree in a basin and plan to use a hose to water it, then you will need to widen the basin as the tree grows.
5.) Expect Litter: There is no such thing as a tree that won’t drop at least some leaves, pods, or flowers. Homeowners often view these natural occurrences as “litter” on their thick layer of gravel. This can lead to pruning a tree in an unnatural way, making it grow crooked and leaving it vulnerable to disease. Plant your tree in an area with decomposed granite and scattered riprap that looks more like natural desert. Then a tree’s leaves, pods and flowers will have a chance to decompose and blend in with your landscaping. You won’t mind them as much. For the same reason, use a shade structure to shade your pool and not a tree.
Your city is eager to help you plant and maintain trees. Check your city’s water conservation website for simple tree care instructions, videos and classes. You also can find help at the Arizona Community Tree Council and at AMWUA.org.
For 45 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.