How to Plant a Tree—and Get it to Thrive

Go out on a limb.

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A tree can be your home’s best outdoor asset, especially in warm weather. It offers instant curb appeal out front and instant shade for relaxation in the backyard: Use it as a landscaping element, design a bed of flowers around it, string fairy lights in its branches and have a picnic (or a party!) underneath.

What’s that? Your yard doesn’t have a tree suitable for any of these things? No problem—plant one! Planting a tree is both easy and great for the environment. Even just one makes a positive impact, says Diana Chaplin of One Tree Planted, a Vermont-based nonprofit that fights deforestation: Every single tree helps to clean the air, filter the water, and provide habitats and food for birds and other wildlife. In addition, Chaplin says, the average tree can absorb up to 48 pounds of CO2 per year, which helps offset climate change. In other words: Plant a tree, save the world. So let's get started!

1 What kind of tree should I plant?
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The most common trees found in suburban yards are maples (pictured), oaks, birch, and dogwoods, Chaplin says. Consider how much space you have: A Japanese maple is great if you want something that will stay fairly small, but if you want it to "grow into a giant," go for an oak. It's also smart to find out what grows well in your area: Check the USDA's online map of "plant hardiness zones" to see what zone you're in and what will thrive there.

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2 Do I want shade? Flowers? Fruit?
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Deciduous trees like oaks and maples grow tall and have big, leafy canopies, so they're great for shade, Chaplin says. Cherry blossoms, magnolias, and dogwoods (pictured) will bloom gorgeously every year, also "filling the neighborhood with their scent and attracting pollinators, who love nectar and are so important to environmental health." Fruit-producing trees like apples and pears also bloom beautifully but may attract unwanted pests, she warns, for the same reason that humans love them: "because they're delicious!"

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3 Is there any type of tree I should avoid?
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Yes! Besides avoiding any tree that is not recommended for your zone, Chaplin does not recommend cottonwoods, as they have shallow roots and can fall over, or mulberry trees, which produce lots of pollen and attract lots of insects. Also, "romantic as they may be," she says, "avoid weeping willows (pictured) unless you have a lake or pond nearby. Willows are very thirsty trees and can suck the soil dry if they don’t have an abundant water supply."

4 Where should I put it?
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Chaplin's "rule of (green) thumb" is to plant at least 10 feet away from the house for small trees (like dogwoods or magnolias), 20 feet away for medium trees (like birches or Japanese maples), and at least 50 feet away for large trees (like sugar maples or oaks).

5 How? What kind of soil? Do I need mulch? Help!
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Don't panic! Once you've brought your new tree home from the nursery, just dig a hole big enough to fully accommodate the root ball, with a bit of extra room all around. Once it's in place, Chaplin recommends that you "give it the best chance of survival with a healthy dose of nutrients—tree food!—like enriched topsoil, compost, or fertilizer." Adding mulch—any kind, she says—around the perimeter will help keep moisture in, protect the roots, and prevent weeds. Now you're ready to enjoy your beautiful tree, and all its environmental benefits, for decades to come.

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