Guide To Planting and Caring for Trees  

Growing Trees on Your Lawn

Trees are planted on lawns so often that you probably take their peaceful coexistence for granted. They may seem like natural companions, but they are not. Each weakens the other so that both of their immune systems are compromised. Fortunately, you can help the immune systems of both by observing and mimicking nature.

Organic Yards

The best kind of yard is an organic yard. Pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers are harmful to the environment and your yard. They destroy beneficial microbes that live in the soil. These microbes are essential to the immune systems of your lawn, trees, and other growing things. Destructive diseases and other pests attack weak plants with compromised immune systems and are a symptom and contributor to a plant's decline, not the cause.

The cause is usually a whole range of problems, such as the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the wrong soil pH, or plants that aren't naturally compatible.

Understanding Plant Relationships

Walk through a natural forest and observe how the trees grow and what grows under the trees. There is very little grass because there isn't enough light. The lower branches of the trees are missing because there isn't light for them either. Both grass and trees need light because they both use the sun to turn water and minerals into carbohydrates and other necessities. This is done through the process of photosynthesis, which we will review later.

In a forest, the trunks and branches you see are part of a vast structural system that also acts as a food storage site. Photosynthesis takes place in the leaves at the top of the trees. When leaves die, they fall to the ground and are naturally composted into humus. This provides a rich environment for tree roots. Most tree roots are near the surface because that is where the humus is located. It is also the home of beneficial fungi, bacteria, nematodes, and other micro life forms that help trees and other plants absorb the minerals they need.

The only places where you will see grass are the areas where there is enough light. Within a forest, there is often grass near creeks, rivers, and in natural clearings. Even grass needs humus to be healthy. Some areas of the world have vast natural grasslands, such as the Great Plains of the Midwest. When grass dies, it is eventually turned into humus by soil micro and macro organisms. The humus feeds new grass.

On the other hand, many of the grasslands that you look at and assume are natural, aren't natural at all. In many parts of the world, the valleys have been deforested and crops planted in their places. Steeper hills around valleys have been deforested as well, so that cattle or sheep can graze.

As an example, in the Silicon and Sacramento valleys of California, vast tracts of oak forests were removed from the valley floors and replaced by crops and orchards. Many of the hills around the valleys were also deforested so that cattle could graze. When cattle or sheep graze in an area, they eat the seeds and nuts so that new trees don't grow. Many of the hills around the valleys aren't used for grazing anymore, but the trees haven't been able to grown back.

It is important to understand that your yard is a whole growing area and that your plants will grow best when they are compatible with the soil, climate, and each other. By understanding more about soil, pH, photosynthesis, and a few other things, you will be able to grow healthy trees in on a healthy lawn. Compost and humus are often used interchangeably when referring to the end product of composting.



If you live in a subdivision home like many of us, all of the topsoil and natural humus was hauled away during construction. What does that mean for your garden? It means that you are left with dead dirt-you must start from scratch to breathe life into it.
Soil Composition
There are many variations of soil composition, but the three basic types are sand, clay, and silt.

1. Sandy soil is easy to work with and drains quickly, but it can dry out too quickly for many plants.

2. Clay is very heavy and hard to work with. When it is dry, it is very hard and when it is wet, it is very sticky. Drainage is poor.

3. Silt drains reasonably well and is workable when wet, but very hard when dry.

Most soil is a composite and has varying amounts of organic material. It may also have varying amounts of rocks. Regardless of which one of these soils you have, or what composite you have, the secret to helping your garden is the magic of composting. Composting turns garden waste into humus. It mimics nature.

Soil pH

pH is a measure of acidity vs. alkalinity in a substance. pH is measured by the number of hydrogen atoms in a solution and uses a scale of 1 to 14. 1 is extremely acidic and 14 is extremely alkaline (or basic). 7 is neutral.

The formula is: pH = -log10 [H+]

Since pH is logarithmic, 6 is 10 times more acidic than 7 and 5 is 100 times more acidic than 7. It follows that 8 is 10 times more alkaline than 7 and 9 is 100 times more alkaline than 7.

This is important to understand because most plants grow best in a slightly acid to neutral soil (pH of 6 to 7). Actually a pH of 6.5 is the point where minerals become most available to plants. As an example, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium (NPK), and trace elements are most readably accessible at a 6.5 pH. A 6.5 pH is only slightly acidic. If your lawn or trees look like they are missing an element such as iron, the real problem may be that the pH is too far out of the 6.5 range for the grass or trees to absorb it. Test your soil with an electronic soil and pH tester to find out how your soil rates.

Photosynthesis and Plant Growth

Photosynthesis is a complex mechanism that uses the sun's energy and water to convert carbon dioxide into carbohydrates and simple sugars. The byproduct of photosynthesis is oxygen. Water (H2O) plus carbon dioxide (CO2), becomes carbohydrate or glucose (the exact chemical composition depends on the plant) plus oxygen (O). Thus, the plant has food and we have oxygen plus food (plants are food for us).

The secret of photosynthesis is chlorophyll, which is stored in chloroplasts in leaves. During photosynthesis, the sun's rays are absorbed by chlorophyll and used to create simple sugars and carbohydrates. The color of the leaves, usually green, is the only part of the color spectrum that isn't absorbed. Instead, we see it reflected as the color of the leaf.

Before photosynthesis can take place, the roots must pull water and minerals up from the soil to the leaves. This pumping process is called transpiration. Chlorophyll in leaves absorbs the sun's energy. Pores on the underside of leaves (called stomata) absorb carbon dioxide while allowing oxygen and water vapor to exit. Photosynthesis uses the water and minerals pulled up by transpiration, plus carbon dioxide from the air, to create carbohydrates, simple sugars, and other plant necessities.

Healthy grass, trees, and other plants have healthy root systems. Healthy root systems are the most interesting and misunderstood part of plant life. Roots systems rely on fungal root systems, called mycorrhizae, that attach themselves to the root hairs and significantly increase the absorption area of a root system. This fungal root system uses a small amount of the plant's energy, but absorbs microelements that would otherwise be unavailable to the plant.

The rhizosphere is the moist area that extends approximately one millimeter around roots, root hairs, and mycorrhizae. It is teeming with microscopic life forms that are both beneficial and pathogenic. As long as the plant is healthy and the correct balance of air, water, pH, and other factors is maintained, the plant's natural defenses keep out pathogens. But once the natural balance is disturbed, the root system is disrupted and pathogens can get a foothold.

As an example, oak root fungus (Armillaria) is a common soil fungi found in most soils, but remains dormant until conditions are right, and the tree begins to weaken. If you use a fungicide to kill oak root fungus, you will totally disrupt the natural soil environment and the tree will be attacked by other pathogens. The best way to keep oak root fungus away is to ensure lots of beneficial life forms in the soil.

The root system is just as important as photosynthesis for healthy plants. Unfortunately, the typical way to deal with the dead dirt of a new subdivision house is to cover the dead dirt with several inches of topsoil, install a sprinkler system, dig holes for trees and shrubs, and lay down sod. Planting mix is used in the holes where the trees and shrubs are to be planted.

Once everything is set up, you begin watering, adding chemical fertilizer at the proper intervals, and of course using the proper herbicides and pesticides. This system does not work with nature, but against nature. The topsoil is devoid of humus, the leaves and cut grass are raked up, and the chemicals kill the micro life forms that could have made humus. High nitrogen fertilizers also acidify the soil so that it gradually becomes too acidic for most of your plants, forcing you to add lime. In addition, chemical fertilizer creates shallow roots that make grass and trees susceptible to drought. Fortunately, you can bring health back to your yard.

If you want a yard that is healthy, alive, vibrant, and free of chemicals, learn about composting. The end result of compost is humus, which is nature's own fertilizer. Compost adds structure to soil and acts as a natural buffer, which allows plants to absorb minerals in a much wider pH range. The micro life forms in compost also help to neutralize pH extremes. With the help of compost and proper watering, the grass, trees, and other plants in your yard will grow deep roots and have very little difficulty with the pests that menace other yards. To learn more about composting, see the following website Compost Guide.

Improving Your Lawn and Its Trees

Although lawns and trees aren't naturally good companions, there are things you can do to help their association, even if you have an old lawn and old trees.

One thing that is often done to help lawns and trees coexist is to use a seed mix that contains both sun loving and shade tolerant grass. A typical mix is Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue, and annual ryegrass. This can be helpful because all three seeds can grow in the 6 to 7 pH range and the shade tolerant grass can eke out an existence under a large tree.

Unfortunately, another method is often used. Large trees are severely pruned. Many of the lower branches are removed and the tree is thinned. This dramatically reduces the glucose storage area, which the tree needs for new leaves and root growth. It often leads to a gradual decline and death of the tree. Young trees can handle a significant amount of pruning, but old trees can tolerate only light pruning.

The preferred tree pH is often not considered when trees are selected for lawns. As an example, European white birch trees grow on many lawns (often in groups of three). In many areas they are thought of as sensitive trees because they are susceptible to disease. Actually, the problem is that lawns usually have a pH between 6 and 7, while European white birches grow best in an acid soil with a pH of 5 to 5.5. Of course, they also prefer a cold climate.

Improving an Existing Lawn and Trees

If you have an existing lawn with trees growing on it, don't rush into things. Dig into the lawn in an unobtrusive area to see what is underneath the grass. Often there is a layer of topsoil over the original graded earth and nothing else. Take a sample of the soil from several different areas in the lawn and check the pH. This will tell you what you have to begin with. It will also be a reference point to give you an idea how your soil changes as you improve it. Most gardening centers have a variety of pH testing kits.

Adding compost will help, even if your lawn is very acid or alkaline. The buffering effect of compost is extremely good at neutralizing pH extremes. Aerate your lawn and spread compost on top. If you haven't started composting yet, you will have to purchase compost. You can also use organic fertilizer. Find out more about aerating your lawn and using compost or organic fertilizer, at the Organic Lawncare site.

Tips: Mature Lawn Trees

If you have an old tree on your lawn, there are important things to understand. There are also precautions to take. Tree roots extend far beyond the drip zone. When you aerate the lawn, be careful not to damage major roots. Do not aerate near the trunk.

If you have an old tree with a significant surface root problem, you may have to live with it or remove the tree and start from scratch. Some important considerations follow:

- Digging up offending roots may severely damage the root system and health of the tree.

- Covering the offending root area with dirt and planting new seeds will change the oxygen level of the tree roots and probably cause significant damage to the tree's health.

- Adding up to three inches of mulch around your trees is beneficial. Wood chips from a tree company work well as mulch as long as they are not fresh. Fresh chips or other mulch need nitrogen to decompose and will rob the ground and your root system of nitrogen. The mulch is light enough that it won't impact the soil oxygen level and the mulch will eventually decompose into humus. The mulch should not be too close to the trunk.

- Some trees are especially prone to surface root problems. Poplar and willow trees are examples.

- Removing the old lawn and reseeding or resodding will severely damage the health of trees growing on your lawn.

If you have an old lawn, and want to plant a new tree, that is fine. Look in the next section to find out about planting trees and things to watch for when deciding on a tree.

Tips: New Lawn and Trees

There is a lot of information available on organic gardening in books and on the Internet. There are also contractors that specialize in organic landscaping. Do some thorough research before you begin. A few important things that aren't usually addressed follow:

- It is best to use plants that are native to your area, or are native to a similar area. They will naturally tend to be healthier.

- If you look closely at trees in a nursery, you will find that the top has been clipped off of many varieties. This is an old tradition intended to make the tree spread out as it grows. However, every tree has its own branching pattern and topping, even when very young, often disrupts the branching pattern. This often leads to a dangerous tree when mature. A prime example is the liquid amber. Liquid ambers normally grow with a straight vertical trunk and horizontal branches. They are very sturdy trees. However, when they are topped, they develop two or more main trunks that are connected by a very weak crotch. These weak trunks are very susceptible to storm damage. Try to find a tree that hasn't been topped.

- Small trees that don't have to be staked are best because they develop a strong trunk.

- Young trees can handle more pruning than older trees, but do not top them.

- Make sure your lawn and trees have compatible pH's.

- When you plant a lawn tree, mulch a ten-foot area around the tree. This will help develop a healthy root system. The tree will grow much more quickly because it won't have to compete with grass roots. Use a weathervane or garden arbor at your house!

- When deciding where to plant your lawn trees, consider the location of your utilities. If you plant a tree over a gas, water, underground electrical, or underground cable line that has to be repaired in a few years, you will have a big problem.

- Tree roots love to grow under sidewalks, patios, and driveways. There is usually a layer of sand and or gravel right under the cement. This traps moisture and air, and the roots have a field day. The result is lifted cement. If it is a sidewalk, the roots usually grow right under it and into the lawn on the other side. On the other hand, they seldom go under a foundation because it is too deep to contain sufficient oxygen for root growth. Do not plant trees close to these areas. You can help to reduce root damage by using a product referred to as 'root block.' It is a roll of plastic that you insert vertically into a trench next to the cement. The roots usually won't grow under root block.

- Remember that a little sapling grows into a mighty tree. Make sure there is enough room before you plant. Look up. Are there obstacles above?

- Are you using a reel mower to mow your yard? If you have a small to medium sized lawn, reel mowers make working outside a lot more pleasant.

- Check the variety of tree you plan to use to make sure that it is compatible with lawns. What pH does the tree prefer? How much water does it need? Before you choose a tree, look for it in parks and yards of other homes to make sure it doesn't have surface root problems.

For excellent instructions on how to plant your trees, see Tree Planting Fact Sheets. This website also has general information on trees and a link to Dr. Shigo's books. Dr. Shigo is the father of modern aboricultural science. He has debunked old myths and improved our knowledge of trees and their interaction with the environment.

Now you have a basic understanding of why organic lawn, trees, and yards are important. You also know that you can change your yard from a chemical cocktail to an organic Eden. It's time to begin.