A website from UGA Cooperative Extension

by Gabrielle LaTora, Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent

Did you know that winter is the best time to plant trees? That’s now! But don’t run off to dig a hole just yet—there are a few important considerations and prep steps that will give your tree its best chance for success.

Over the next few blog posts, I’ll “dig” into exactly how to plant a tree, from site selection and planning all the way to tree pruning 101. Stay tuned to learn all you ever wanted to know (and more!) about planting trees.

Selecting Your Site

It may seem like an easy task to plant a tree, but there are some important steps to follow. The first and most important step is considering where you want your tree to go. Consider the major factors that impact a plant’s survival, like sunlight, soil type, drainage, and temperature. What do these factors look like at your planting location?

  • Sunlight—how many hours of sunlight does your site receive each day? Is it morning or afternoon sun? Does sunlight shine directly on your site, or is it filtered through the leaves of nearby trees? Is it reflected off of a structure, like a house?
  • Soil—what does your soil feel like? Is it Georgia red clay or brown/black? Is it compacted or loose? You’ll want to get a soil test to check for soil nutrients. (More on this in a later post!)
  • Moisture and Drainage—Is your site’s soil moist or dry? Does water flow from other areas of the landscape onto your site after it rains? Does water tend to stand there or drain away quickly?
  • Temperature—how does the temperature at your site compare to the rest of the landscape? Different landscape characteristics can create microclimates. For example, a garden bed next to a brick wall may be warmer than other areas in the yard, as the brick wall absorbs sunlight and radiates it out as heat. A site at the bottom of a hill will likely be colder than higher ground.

Take a week or two to observe the sunlight, soil, moisture, and temperature at your site. You will use this data to find the best tree for you. The good news is that you can find a tree for almost any set of conditions! In the gardening world, we use the tenet “Right Plant, Right Place.” This means that we want to make sure the conditions at our site match the conditions that a particular tree needs.

How Do I Find the Right Tree?

The NCSU Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox is a great tool for checking the needs of different trees. You will also want to take a look at the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map and choose a tree that matches the zone where you live. Here in the Atlanta area, we’re in zone 8a. This means we will want to look for tree types that grow well in this zone. Trees that grow better at colder zones will be stressed by the heat and humidity of our area, and trees that grow better at warmer zones can’t handle our winters. Each tree type has a range of zones that it will tolerate. As long as the zone where you live is somewhere in the middle of that range, you’re good to go!

A Note on Native Trees

Don’t forget to include native tree species in your search! “Native” plants have evolved in our region—this means they are perfectly suited to north-central Georgia’s temperatures, climate, and soils, and may need less maintenance and care than their non-native counterparts. Native trees can also be more resistant to diseases and insect pests. Low maintenance plants mean less time, money, and labor for you!

There are plenty of native trees that look gorgeous in the landscape. Here are some of my favorites:

Small Trees

  • Downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)—serviceberries produce small, delicate, white blooms in early spring that develop into tasty summer fruits. This tree likes sites with good drainage and is great for pollinators and birds!
  • Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)—one of the most graceful native trees, Eastern redbuds like moist soils but will handle most any site. You can find many different cultivars with varying flower and leaf colors.
  • Carolina silverbell (Halesia tetraptera)—silverbells have very cool bell-shaped flowers that dangle festively in late spring. A little pickier than others, it prefers moist but well-draining soils and a little shade.

Medium and Large Trees

  • Red maple (Acer rubrum)—choose a maple if you want gorgeous fall color! Despite the name, red maple leaves can vary from yellow to red in fall. Red maples can adapt to a variety of sunlight and soil conditions.
  • Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)—tulip poplars have gorgeous, tulip-shaped leaves and fragrant, show-stopping flowers in late spring. This fast-growing tree prefers moist, well-drained soils and full sun. If you give it these conditions, it will get HUGE (we’re talking 80-100 feet tall), so plan your site accordingly.
  • Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)—these southern gems lend a different “texture” to the garden, with big, glossy, evergreen leaves and massive, showy flowers in early summer. Magnolias don’t like hot, dry sites but will make a great privacy screen if given enough space and the right conditions.

For many more native trees, visit our publication Native Plants for Georgia Part I: Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines.

You will save yourself money and energy by taking the time to observe your site and select a tree with matching needs. The “Right Plant, Right Place” approach gives your tree the best chance of success and protects your investment!

Remember, you can always reach out to your local Extension office for help selecting the right tree for your space.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our “Planning for Tree Planting Success” series: Prepping Your Soil!