OPINION: When you plant a tree in your Alaska backyard, here are some tips to consider

While it will still be another month or so before the ground thaws and we can begin our annual planting rituals, now is a good time to plan those projects — especially any involving perennial plants, shrubs and trees. Twenty years ago, planting Mayday and Canada Red trees seemed like a great idea, beautiful white spring flowers on the Maydays (Prunus padus) and brilliant purple leaves on the Canada Reds (Prunus virginiana). However, now both of these tree species are taking over! While their green leaves and white flowers might look beautiful spreading along our local trails and waterways, these species displace our native shrubs, disrupt wildlife habitat, and support fewer terrestrial insects than native plants, which reduces the abundance of insects that fall into streams as food for our growing salmon. Healthy trees can easily outlive whomever planted the tree, and even a well-thought-out tree could later be a problem. Take the time early on to decide what you do want or don’t want a tree to provide before making your selection.

Trees offer many benefits to our homes and communities. Trees can be windbreaks, privacy screens, summer shade, a home for birds and wildlife and increase the value of our property. The utility and value of a tree often depends on a few decisions by the homeowner. Are you replacing a dead tree? Are wildfires a serious threat? Where are the utilities located on the property? Do you like trees that are green year-round or those that shed their leaves each fall? Are you looking for a flowering tree? Or one that produces fruit?

Some places are not appropriate for a tree — you wouldn’t want to plant a cottonwood tree over a septic system, or a spruce under the power line. The Plant a Tree guide available online provides more information on the right tree in the right place planted the right way. The more you decide the tree’s characteristics and function early in the process the less hassle selecting the right tree will be. No one wants to remove or heavily prune a favorite tree well before their lifespan ends because the tree stayed much the same but the site changed.

The soil Alaska trees grow in is very young. It doesn’t hold a lot of nutrients for tree roots and it’s cold. On top of that, sunlight effectively isn’t available November through January. Alaskan trees have a number of challenges to overcome to survive. There just aren’t many trees that are adapted to this physical environment. Sometimes a new tree species is thought to be a perfect match for Alaska’s challenges but over time it becomes susceptible to insects or diseases, or it crowds out other trees and brush and destroys habitat.

Native trees are always the best choice — birch, quaking aspen, white or Sitka spruce and several native shrubs can all be good additions to most yards in Southcentral Alaska. Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game has an excellent online resource for landscaping for wildlife that includes a native plant guide that can help you find the right native plant for your situation. Adding trees to your landscape needs to account for the many challenges faced by trees. A new tree should be thoughtfully selected so it survives, thrives, compliments the site, adds value to the landscape but does not threaten or damage the surrounding environment. Scientists say we still have a chance to save urban forests and reduce further spread of invasives such as Prunus and the first place to start is by planting trees that are not invasive and taking Prunus padus and Prunus virginiana off your list of choices.

Consider some proven choices. Royalty Crabapple will give you that purple leaf effect, along with a delightful light pink spring flower. An assortment of alternative options for the Mayday include varieties of crabapples that come in all shapes and sizes with various colorful flowers. Or go with Amur Maple and get some fall color. Maybe a Hawthorne that will reduce moose damage; tree lilacs have incredible flowers and are a smaller tree, a better fit for smaller yards.

There are also resources available to help you decide what tree is right for you. The most comprehensive look at recommended landscaping trees and shrubs, the Landscape Plants for Alaska website provides descriptions of characteristics and growing limitations for over 350 trees, shrubs and vines suited for Alaska. Keep in mind this website is a statewide list; a tree listed as suitable in Southeast Alaska may grow in Seward and parts of the Kenai Peninsula, but likely will not survive in Willow or the Mat-Su. Know your USDA climate zone and narrow choices to landscape plants listed for that vegetation growing zone. For those of us that like to see things first, and are lucky enough to be close to University of Alaska in Anchorage, there are over 100 trees of different varieties planted throughout the campus. The UAA Tree Tour will guide you to each tree so you can see for yourself. Even if you cannot go to UAA, review the trees listed in the Tree Tour as a starting point. A tree that was planted on the UAA campus in Anchorage in 2007 or earlier has survived 15 years or more in a tough landscape (a lot of foot traffic and ground disturbance, no irrigation, high reflection from building windows which drastically increases temperature on nearby trees your round, etc.).


Additionally, the Alaska Botanical Garden has many varieties of trees, shrubs and vines for you to view on their grounds. Trees thrive when they’re planted in the right place. Planting a tree is among the best, low cost investments you can make in your property. Trees clean the air, prevent erosion, help cool the landscape and increase the value of your property. To make sure you reap all the benefits trees provide, make your planting selection wisely so that you don’t end up with the wrong tree in the wrong place.

Meg Burgett chairs the Alaska Community Forest Council.

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