A Greek proverb says, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” However, that doesn’t mean society will suffer if the person who plants a tree also sits under it.

Because they want to see the shade, and the beauty, most gardeners plant fairly large trees, even though they are more expensive and planting smaller is probably healthier for the trees.

“Larger trees is what everybody is asking for, especially people who have some age to them,” said Al Lappin, founder of Al Lappin Landscaping Co. in Scarborough. Lappin has been in the horticulture business for 54 years, was named Maine’s horticulturist of the year in 2014 and is slowly turning the business over to his two sons.

The research backing smaller trees is summarized in a University of Maine Cooperative Extension bulletin titled “Debunking Old Gardening Myths: Caring for Woody Plants in the Maine Landscape.”

“Research now shows that smaller trees establish their root systems more quickly after transplanting than larger trees,” the 2011 publication written by Marjorie Peronto says. “In one study over a 10-year period, 1-inch-diameter trees, because they became established more quickly, actually outgrew trees that were 6 inches in diameter at planting time.”

Lappin said he usually finds a compromise that works.

“I don’t like to 6- to 8-inch-caliper (diameter) trees,” he said. “I plant 3- to 3.5-inch maples, and if you blink your eye they have grown quite a bit.”

For ornamentals, he goes with 1- to 2-inch trees.

Lappin is a professional, with experienced workers and power equipment to assist him in the planting.

For a home gardener, there are other considerations. Smaller trees and shrubs are a lot less expensive. In addition, they are a lot easier to plant because the root ball is smaller, requiring you to dig a much smaller hole.

When my wife, Nancy, and I had the home where we still live constructed in the 1970s, we were in our 20s and didn’t have a lot of extra money. When we bought plants, we bought the smallest and least expensive ones we could find.

The plants have grown old along with us, and most of them are looking good – probably better than we do.

Now that we are in our 60s, when we want a new plant we no longer buy the smallest ones available – but we don’t get the biggest ones, either. We could afford the extra money, but hauling a balled-and-burlaped tree from the back of the truck to the place where we want it planted is tough.

A chart on the website of Millican Nurseries, a plant wholesaler in Chichester, New Hampshire, says the root ball on a 2- to 2.5-inch-caliper tree weighs 400 pounds, which can be tough to move in a wheelbarrow. The weight goes up from there as the caliper of the tree widens.

When starting with a new property with no landscaping, people often put small trees too close together, forgetting that they will grow.

“I see a lot of plantings where everything is planted close together, and three years down the road everything is jammed up,” Lappin said. “That’s what landscape architects do when they want an instant effect, and I don’t think it is good for the plants.”

Add to that, I think it involves a lot of work for the homeowner maintaining that garden, too.

Lappin is familiar enough with plants that he knows what they will look like when they have grown. He usually puts the 3-inch-caliper plants about 5 feet apart.

“That works pretty well if you do some proper trimming to give them some shape after they get some size,” he said.

He advises his clients to plant perennials in between the trees so the ground doesn’t look bare before the trees get big. Once the trees have grown, some perennials can stay behind and others can be moved to other parts of the yard, he said.

If, despite the advantages of using smaller trees, people want to plant big ones, they might have trouble finding them on the market for the next few years, Lappin warned.

When the recession hit in 2008, demand for trees slowed and wholesale nurseries stopped planting them. Now that the recession is over, big trees are scarce.

Lappin has been trying to place an order for 35 maple trees, and three different companies have canceled the order because they couldn’t fill it.

With junipers, he prefers the plants that come in 5-gallon containers, but all he has been able to find are 3-gallon containers, and even they are scarce.

With the scarcity, “prices are taking an awful big jump this year,” Lappin said.

But don’t let the rising prices, scarcity or anything else deter you. A saying from the Chinese, to balance the Greek proverb with which I began the column, goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

You probably should wait until April to plant it, but you could order it now.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected]


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