Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
January, 2001
Regional Report

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Chinese pistachio adds beautiful form and leaf color to the landscape.

Planting Trees

Which tree should you put in your garden? Before you decide on a tree, the first thing you need to consider is where you will plant it. As in real estate, the key is location, location, location. Think long and hard about the location because it will be several years before your mistake becomes evident, and by that time, it's too late.

Choosing a Tree

For planting close to the house, choose mid- to slow- growing varieties. Fast-growing trees tend to be brittle and may lose branches, which is not good close to a house. Ideally, a shade tree should be planted 30-50 feet from a house to avoid the danger of limbs and debris falling on the roof.

Where Not to Plant

Don't plant large trees near a sidewalk, driveway, or concrete foundation, since roots can lift and damage those structures. Also, avoid planting trees above buried gas, electric, sewer, or water lines. If the lines need maintenance, you - or someone - will have to dig through tree roots. Before you plant, contact your local utility company to send someone out to locate and mark existing utility lines. Overhead power lines can also be a problem - it's best to avoid planting trees under them.

The Best Site

The ideal location for a tree is on the west side of the house, far enough away from the house so it can reach its full, mature size. When the sun is at its hottest point, in the late afternoon, the large tree will shade the west-facing wall and some of the roof. The money saved in cooling bills during the summer months can be substantial.

You can plant deciduous trees on the east side of the house. Deciduous trees will drop their leaves in the winter, allowing some winter sun to heat the building, but still provide leafy shade in the heat of the summer months. Also consider where the air-conditioning unit is placed. Provide some shade for it, and you'll drop cooling costs even further. Leave the south-facing side open to receive the full benefit of the weak, winter sun. Plant evergreen trees on the northwest side of the house to block the cold winter winds.

The Right Tree

To choose the correct tree for your location, first study your planting site. From which direction do the prevailing winds blow? What are the existing environmental conditions? What do you need the tree to do?

Now is the time to decide what type of tree you are going to plant. Walk around your neighborhood and see what trees grow well. Talk to your neighbors to see if they've had any insect problems with a particular tree. I suggest that you visit an arboretum where all the trees are labeled, then ask the arboretum gardeners if they could recommend a particular variety of a desired tree. I once insisted on planting a jacaranda, which, although it was spectacularly beautiful, turned out to be incredibly messy, dropping flowers, fruits, and some leaves all year long. So do your homework before purchasing and planting a tree. It could be with you for a long, long time.

The following paragraphs describe a few of my favorite western trees; all do well along the coast and in the inland valleys.

Chinese Pistachio

A tidy tree, the Chinese pistachio (Pistacia chinensis) has a pleasing round shape, produces outstanding fall color, and loses its leaves over a short period, which means little time spent raking. It requires full sun, deep well-drained soil, and annual pruning.

Western Redbud

A small deciduous tree, the western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) grows 15-20 feet tall. It's native to Utah, Arizona, and parts of California. It blooms in early spring with tiny flowers that range from magenta to white. Redbud adapts well to different moisture conditions. It grows equally well near lawns or in a dry area. In dry areas, provide infrequent deep watering in summer months.


There are several types of redwood trees, including the coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), and giant redwood (Sequoiadendron gigantia). Giant sequoias and coastal redwoods are the world's largest living organisms - living for up to 3,000 years. They can grow to over 350 feet tall and are revered for their stately presence along the California and Oregon coast and in groves in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Giant and coastal redwoods are evergreens, while the dawn redwood is deciduous (loses its leaves each fall). All three have a handsome pyramid shape. The lower branches grow all the way to the ground and sometimes take root and form new trees. Although the trees are massive in size, they have shallow roots and collect their water from the steady drip of summer fog that gathers in the dense foliage.

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