Before you plant a tree, consider its size, roots

05/20/2010 3:01 AM

09/08/2014 5:40 PM

''The right tree in the right place'' has long been the mantra of tree experts. When you hear that phrase, you probably think: Do not put a big tree under a power line. You're correct.

But there's more to the ''right place'' than meets the eye, especially when helping trees withstand hurricanes.

Big trees -- mahogany, live oak, tamarind, floss silk, kapok, royal poinciana -- need big areas in which to spread their roots. Trees growing on Dade County limestone may have four to 10 large lateral roots as their main anchors. Most of their fine roots are in the top 12 to 18 inches, just below the grass. In well-drained soil, some roots may go three to 10 feet deep, but most spread out closer to the surface.

Every year, roots grow four to 10 feet in any one direction. That means tree roots have grown out about three times the length of the branches within 18 months.

If a big tree has limited root space, more frequent pruning may be required to keep its canopy in check than is needed for a tree on a large property. Since a rule of thumb for tree health is to remove no more than 25 to 30 percent of the tree's canopy at once, you may have to repeatedly prune to get or keep the right canopy shape.

Think right tree, right place first, and you will save yourself money. You also will improve your tree's storm durability.

''Small tree, small place'' may be the correct way to think when you want a tree for the corner between the garage and house or the pool and patio.

Once your trees are in place, you have to keep track of their health, said Mary Edwards, a consulting arborist with ValleyCrest Tree Care. ValleyCrest is a landscape maintenance company with offices throughout the United States, including Miami and Orlando. Many people plant a tree and think they can take care of it themselves forever after. Wrong. Water, fertilizer and pruning are all a part of tree upkeep.

Pruning should be done by an insured and certified arborist. You can obtain a list of certified arborists from the IFAS/Cooperative Extension Service in your county.

Pruning can keep trees healthy by removing dead wood, which provides ports of entry for insects and disease. Pruning should remove multiple leaders, which will pull apart in a storm.

Pruning can beautify a tree, not only opening the canopy to allow wind through, but making a tree more graceful. Pruning fruit trees can keep the fruit within reach, and pruning flowering trees can help make them more floriferous.

So should all trees be pruned annually? ''It depends on the age of the tree,'' Edwards said. ``Young trees that are growing fast need a different type of pruning than older trees.''

Young trees are pruned for ''structural integrity'' -- a balanced canopy with a single, central leader and nicely spaced lateral branches. Achieving that shape may take several years. When trees are older, you may be able to buy some time but at least have them looked at annually, Edwards said.

Elderly trees have to be carefully checked for hollows and decay, which make them vulnerable to wind damage.

Some trees are more resistant to wind than others. They include Geiger trees, mangos, mimusops, live oaks, mahoganies, tamarinds and many palms.

Trees that are brittle and likely to be badly damaged include bischofia, avocado, African tulip, jacaranda, weeping fig and Australian pine. Yellow tabebuia is unstable in wind and topples easily. Norfolk Island pine loses its branches and ends up an enormous flagpole. Queen palms, which have heavy crowns and often are loaded with seeds, tend to go over in storms.

To help trees better survive hurricanes, plant them in groves, Edwards suggests. Trees planted as single specimens in your landscape are more vulnerable than those in groups. Even small trees planted by themselves can get whacked in a storm.

There are plenty of trees that can take high winds, ranging from live oak to Simpson stopper, from large to small. Mastic, one of the tallest native trees, has better than average tolerance to wind.

The South Florida Water Management District says other trees with high wind tolerance include strangler fig, black ironwood, the many understory trees called stoppers and buttonwood.

Trees with a medium wind tolerance include cypress, gumbo-limbo (this tree generally sheds limbs to stay upright), cocoplum, dahoon holly, red bay and Jamaica caper.

Durable palms include paurotis palm (or Everglades palm), Florida thatch palm, cabbage palm (sabal palm) and royal palm.

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