Benefits of TreesMost trees and shrubs in cities or communities are planted to provide beauty or shade. These are two excellent reasons for their use. Woody plants also serve many other purposes, and it often is helpful to consider these other functions when selecting a tree or shrub for the landscape. The benefits of trees can be grouped into social, communal, environmental, and economic categories.
We like trees around us because they make life more pleasant. Most of us respond to the presence of trees beyond simply observing their beauty. We feel serene, peaceful, restful, and tranquil in a grove of trees. We are “at home” there. Hospital patients have been shown to recover from surgery more quickly when their hospital room offered a view of trees. The strong ties between people and trees are most evident in the resistance of community residents to removing trees to widen streets. Or we note the heroic efforts of individuals and organizations to save particularly large or historic trees in a community.
The stature, strength, and endurance of trees give them a cathedral-like quality. Because of their potential for long life, trees frequently are planted as living memorials. We often become personally attached to trees that we or those we love have planted.
Even though trees may be private property, their size often makes them part of the community as well. Because trees occupy considerable space, planning is required if both you and your neighbours are to benefit. With proper selection and maintenance, trees can enhance and function on one property without infringing on the rights and privileges of neighbours.
City trees often serve several architectural and engineering functions. They provide privacy, emphasize views, or screen out objectionable views. They reduce glare and reflection. They direct pedestrian traffic. They provide background to and soften, complement, or enhance architecture.
Trees alter the environment in which we live by moderating climate, improving air quality, conserving water, and harbouring wildlife. Climate control is obtained by moderating the effects of sun, wind, and rain. Radiant energy from the sun is absorbed or deflected by leaves on deciduous trees in the summer and is only filtered by branches of deciduous trees in winter. We are cooler when we stand in the shade of trees and are not exposed to direct sunlight. In winter, we value the sun’s radiant energy. Therefore, we should plant only small or deciduous trees on the south side of homes.
Wind speed and direction can be affected by trees. The more compact the foliage on the tree or group of trees, the greater the influence of the windbreak. The downward fall of rain, sleet, and hail is initially absorbed or deflected by trees, which provides some protection for people, pets, and buildings. Trees intercept water, store some of it, and reduce storm runoff and the possibility of flooding.
Dew and frost are less common under trees because less radiant energy is released from the soil in those areas at night.
Temperature in the vicinity of trees is cooler than that away from trees. The larger the tree, the greater the cooling. By using trees in the cities, we are able to moderate the heat-island effect caused by pavement and buildings in commercial areas.
Air quality can be improved through the use of trees, shrubs, and turf. Leaves filter the air we breathe by removing dust and other particulates. Rain then washes the pollutants to the ground. Leaves absorb carbon dioxide from the air to form carbohydrates that are used in the plant’s structure and function. In this process, leaves also absorb other air pollutants—such as ozone, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide—and give off oxygen.
By planting trees and shrubs, we return to a more natural, less artificial environment. Birds and other wildlife are attracted to the area. The natural cycles of plant growth, reproduction, and decomposition are again present, both above and below ground. Natural harmony is restored to the urban environment.
Individual trees and shrubs have value, but the variability of species, size, condition, and function makes determining their economic value difficult. The economic benefits of trees can be both direct and indirect. Direct economic benefits are usually associated with energy costs. Air-conditioning costs are lower in a tree-shaded home. Heating costs are reduced when a home has a windbreak. Trees increase in value from the time they are planted until they mature. Trees are a wise investment of funds because landscaped homes are more valuable than nonlandscaped homes. The savings in energy costs and the increase in property value directly benefit each home owner.
The indirect economic benefits of trees are even greater. These benefits are available to the community or region. Lowered electricity bills are paid by customers when power companies are able to use less water in their cooling towers, build fewer new facilities to meet peak demands, use reduced amounts of fossil fuel in their furnaces, and use fewer measures to control air pollution. Communities also can save money if fewer facilities must be built to control storm water in the region. To the individual, these savings are small, but to the community, reductions in these expenses are often in the thousands of dollars.
Trees Require an Investment
Trees provide numerous aesthetic and economic benefits but also incur some costs. You need to be aware that an investment is required for your trees to provide the benefits that you desire. The biggest cost of trees and shrubs occurs when they are purchased and planted. Initial care almost always includes some watering. Leaf, branch, and whole tree removal and disposal can be expensive.
To function well in the landscape, trees require maintenance. Much can be done by the informed home owner. Corrective pruning and mulching gives trees a good start. Shade trees, however, quickly grow to a size that may require the services of a professional arborist. Arborists have the knowledge and equipment needed to prune, spray, fertilize, and otherwise maintain a large tree. Your garden center owner, or consulting arborist can answer questions about tree maintenance, suggest treatments, or recommend qualified arborists.
Proper Mulching Techniques
Mulches are materials placed over the soil surface to maintain moisture and improve soil conditions. Mulching is one of the most beneficial things a home owner can do for the health of a tree. Mulch can reduce water loss from the soil, minimize weed competition, and improve soil structure. Properly applied, mulch can give landscapes a handsome, well-groomed appearance. Mulch must be applied properly; if it is too deep or if the wrong material is used, it can actually cause significant harm to trees and other landscape plants.
Benefits of Proper Mulching
Helps maintain soil moisture. Evaporation is reduced, and the need for watering can be minimized.
Helps control weeds. A 50 – 100mm layer of mulch will reduce the germination and growth of weeds.
Mulch serves as nature’s insulating blanket. Mulch keeps soils warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.
Many types of mulch can improve soil aeration, structure (aggregation of soil particles), and drainage over time.
Some mulches can improve soil fertility.
A layer of mulch can inhibit certain plant diseases.
Mulching around trees helps facilitate maintenance and can reduce the likelihood of damage from “weed whackers” or the dreaded “lawn mower blight.”
Mulch can give planting beds a uniform, well-cared-for look.
Trees growing in a natural forest environment have their roots anchored in a rich, well-aerated soil full of essential nutrients. The soil is blanketed by leaves and organic materials that replenish nutrients and provide an optimal environment for root growth and mineral uptake. Urban landscapes, however, are typically a much harsher environment with poor soils, little organic matter, and large fluctuations in temperature and moisture. Applying a 50 to 100mm layer of organic mulch can mimic a more natural environment and improve plant health.
The root system of a tree is not a mirror image of the top. The roots of most trees can extend out a significant distance from the tree trunk. Although the guideline for many maintenance practices is the drip line—the outermost extension of the canopy—the roots can grow many times that distance. In addition, most of the fine, absorbing roots are located within inches of the soil surface. These roots, which are essential for taking up water and minerals, require oxygen to survive. A thin layer of mulch, applied as broadly as practical, can improve the soil structure, oxygen levels, temperature, and moisture availability where these roots grow.
Types of Mulch
Mulches are available commercially in many forms. The two major types of mulch are inorganic and organic. Inorganic mulches include various types of stone, lava rock, pulverized rubber, geotextile fabrics, and other materials. Inorganic mulches do not decompose and do not need to be replenished often. On the other hand, they do not improve soil structure, add organic materials, or provide nutrients. For these reasons, most horticulturists and arborists prefer organic mulches.
Organic mulches include wood chips, pine needles, hardwood and softwood bark, leaves, compost mixes, and a variety of other products usually derived from plants. Organic mulches decompose in the landscape at different rates depending on the material and climate. Those that decompose faster must be replenished more often. Because the decomposition process improves soil quality and fertility, many arborists and other landscape professionals consider that characteristic a positive one, despite the added maintenance.
Not Too Much!
As beneficial as mulch is, too much can be harmful. The generally recommended mulching depth is 50 – 100mm. Unfortunately, many landscapes are falling victim to a plague of overmulching. A new term, “mulch volcanoes,” has emerged to describe mulch that has been piled up around the base of trees. Most organic mulches must be replenished, but the rate of decomposition varies. Some mulches, such as cypress mulch, remain intact for many years. Top dressing with new mulch annually (often for the sake of refreshing the color) creates a buildup to depths that can be unhealthy. Deep mulch can be effective in suppressing weeds and reducing maintenance, but it often causes additional problems.
Problems Associated with Improper Mulching
Deep mulch can lead to excess moisture in the root zone, which can stress the plant and cause root rot.
Piling mulch against the trunk or stems of plants can stress stem tissues and may lead to insect and disease problems.
Some mulches, especially those containing cut grass, can affect soil pH. Continued use of certain mulches over long periods can lead to micronutrient deficiencies or toxicities.
Mulch piled high against the trunks of young trees may create habitats for rodents that chew the bark and can girdle the trees.
Thick blankets of fine mulch can become matted and may prevent the penetration of water and air. In addition, a thick layer of fine mulch can become like potting soil and may support weed growth.
Anaerobic “sour” mulch may give off pungent odours, and the alcohols and organic acids that build up may be toxic to young plants.
It is clear that the choice of mulch and the method of application can be important to the health of landscape plants. The following are some guidelines to use when applying mulch.
Inspect plants and soil in the area to be mulched. Determine whether drainage is adequate. Determine whether there are plants that may be affected by the choice of mulch. Most commonly available mulches work well in most landscapes. Some plants may benefit from the use of a slightly acidifying mulch such as pine bark.
If mulch is already present, check the depth. Do not add mulch if there is a sufficient layer in place. Rake the old mulch to break up any matted layers and to refresh the appearance. Some landscape maintenance companies spray mulch with a water-soluble, vegetable-based dye to improve the appearance.
If mulch is piled against the stems or tree trunks, pull it back several inches so that the base of the trunk and the root crown are exposed.
Organic mulches usually are preferred to inorganic materials due to their soil-enhancing properties. If organic mulch is used, it should be well aerated and, preferably, composted. Avoid sour-smelling mulch.
Composted wood chips can make good mulch, especially when they contain a blend of leaves, bark, and wood. Fresh wood chips also may be used around established trees and shrubs. Avoid using noncomposted wood chips that have been piled deeply without exposure to oxygen.
For well-drained sites, apply a 50 – 100mm layer of mulch. If there are drainage problems, a thinner layer should be used. Avoid placing mulch against the tree trunks. Place mulch out to the tree’s drip line or beyond.
Remember: If the tree had a say in the matter, its entire root system (which usually extends well beyond the drip line) would be mulched.
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(c) 1998, 2004 International Society of Arboriculture.
UPDATED JULY 2005
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© 2007 International Society of Arboriculture.
UPDATED SEPTEMBER 2005