When it comes to trees in the landscape, size matters.
Careful planning can save a lot of trouble down the road because trees that don’t have enough room to grow and mature can damage curbs, roadways and foundations.
A tree without sufficient space also can become unstable and can turn into a safety hazard.
Keep in mind that trees are investments in your property and in the environment. Nobody wants to remove a tree, years down the road, simply because it’s too large. The cost can run into the thousands of dollars.
Tree species, like any other landscape plant, have needs. When selecting a tree for your landscape, there are many considerations such as hardiness zone, wind rating (for tropical storms), color, texture, and harmony with the surrounding landscape.
First though, you must consider the mature height and width of any tree you are interested in planting. For example, if a tree species grows to a mature height of 40 feet and a mature width of 30 feet, trying to cram it into a small yard — with less than 20 feet of space in either direction — is a recipe for disaster. The branches and roots both can become hazards.
Well-established trees will develop a root flare, or a swollen area at the base of the trunk that aids in anchoring the plant. This is where lateral roots will grow in all directions. These roots are responsible for taking up most of the nutrients and moisture needed by the tree and for providing stability.
The general rule of thumb for lateral root spread is two to three times the mature height of the tree beyond the outer edge of the tree’s canopy. A 40-foot tree could easily have roots extending up to 120 feet in any direction.
Many homeowners find themselves with difficult choices to make once trees begin to outgrow their space. For instance, they might try root shaving. Root shaving is not a best practice, as the tree may become unstable or negatively affected by the process.
In most cases, a tree that doesn’t have adequate space will need to be removed.
Besides being costly, it also can be dangerous if not conducted by a certified arborist.
The typical small Florida landscape doesn’t support most of the larger trees we’re used to seeing, such as oaks. Instead of repeating the same mistakes over again, consider planting smaller, native trees that will provide shade, beauty and much desired curb appeal.
Some small, native trees have a variety of benefits beyond fitting well into a given space. Some will allow for more sunlight to filter through, allowing for better growth of some turfgrasses, which cannot tolerate shade.
The diversity these trees bring to the landscape is an added benefit, with many serving as nests for birds, roosting and resting spots for butterflies and other pollinators. Smaller trees are less likely to be damaged during storms and they will be easier to prune, if the need arises. The blooms, and even the bark and foliage, can be focal points for the landscape providing color and appeal throughout the entire year, while helping to increase property values.
The greater the diversity of trees and shrubs in the landscape, the better the environment. Regardless of the plant, it is critical that the right plant is put into the right place, or it will fail to thrive over time. Even if space is considered, the plant might not be well-suited to the environment in a particular location given the differences in soil type, saltwater tolerance, light, drought tolerance, etc.
Examples of small, native trees that do well in Central Florida include some well-known species, as well as some that are underutilized.
The pond cypress is an adaptable tree that can grow 50 feet to 60 feet tall but it possesses a narrow canopy, which makes it ideal for particular situations where height isn’t an issue, but width is. These trees do well in wet areas, but they can tolerate dry conditions. The pond cypress offers bright green awl-shaped leaves that turn brown in the fall. The light brown fall leaves are very pretty. Remember, brown is a color, too, when it comes to nature, so don’t shy away from it. As the leaves drop through winter, the light brown, ridged bark comes into view making them a dynamic plant throughout various seasons.
The Dahoon and East Palatka hollies are gorgeous evergreen trees that grow 20 feet to 45 feet tall, and do very well in Central Florida. The female develops bright red berries in the fall, which entice wildlife to visit and provide seasonal color.
The Chickasaw plum grows to 20 feet to 25 feet tall, and has small, white flowers that are very fragrant. The fruit are red to yellow with a tart but pleasant flavor. These trees are quite dramatic when in bloom, but they do possess thorny branches that could limit the appeal in some situations.
The wax myrtle is a wispy plant that only grows to about 20 feet tall. It’s an evergreen with beautiful whitish-gray bark and olive-green foliage that possesses a spicy fragrance. It can be a showstopper in the right location.
While the sweet acacia tree isn’t too common due to its sharp spines, it’s a beautiful tree with bright, yellow flowers so fragrant they are often added to perfumes. The soft, greenish-gray leaflets make for a sharp contrast against the yellow flowers that persist throughout spring. The sweet acacia normally reaches 20 feet to 25 feet in height.
These trees are just a sampling of the options available for Central Florida homeowners to brighten the landscape.
Trees, including small ones, are incredibly important to the health and vitality of our environment. Trees provide shade, cooling effects, pollinator and animal habitat, ecological diversity, and of course, attractive foliage and colorful blooms to our world.
In summary, planting the right plant in the right place is critical to the survival of the plant, potentially the stability of surrounding structures, and certainly to our quality of life.
For more information, call your local UF/IFAS Extension Office. Your local horticulture agent will be able to provide information specific to your needs for healthy trees and shrubs.
Published March 23, 2022