Trees to Plant Now (part 1)

By Canopy Team on April 17, 2017

On April 6, 2017, Canopy’s Program Director, Michael Hawkins, and Community Forester, Elise Willis, gave a “Trees to Plant Now” presentation at Gamble Garden. We are sharing portions of this presentation because this is information we want everyone to know! Keep reading if you want to feel more confident about choosing the right tree for your yard, and informed about the resources that can help you make your tree decisions.

In Part 1 (this post), we explore the “what, when, and why” of selecting and planting the right tree, and offer a few species recommendations. In Part 2, we explore the “who, where, and how” of planting the right tree.

Why Plant Trees Now

This is a question we love answering. Planting trees where we live, work, and play is key to quality of life. Trees offer “triple bottom line” benefits for human communities:

  • Environmental benefits, both locally and globally.
  • Economic benefits and cost-savings through a myriad of ecosystem services.
  • Psychosocial and physical health benefits that range from stress relief to lower crime rates.

In other words, a healthy urban forest is key to a healthy, resilient community.

But wait, isn’t it the City’s job to plant trees?

It’s true; most cities handle tree-planting in the public right-of-way like roadsides and parks. In schools, often the district oversees tree planting and other grounds maintenance.

But the urban forest doesn’t stop at our driveways! Private property accounts for a lot of land area in Palo Alto, for example. Tree canopy cover from trees in private yards, commercial property, and business parks makes up a large portion of the overall urban forest, and is key to a healthy urban ecosystem.

When to Plant

As the Chinese Proverb goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

That said, the best time may not be right now, depending on where you live.

The optimal time of year to plant a tree varies by region. In the Bay Area, the best time to plant trees is October to March. Most trees are dormant during the cool winter months, so it’s a good time to put them in a new home.

There’s also more rain during these months, and plenty of water is key to help young trees establish successfully after transplanting. Planting during the summer is not recommended in our area, since the hot, dry weather can be stressful for a newly planted tree.

What to Plant

Now, what tree species will you plant? A few things to consider:

First, “right tree, right place” refers to planting trees according to their attributes and location. For instance, don’t plant large trees under power lines or right next to hardscape. On the other hand, do plant a large tree in a large area with good sunlight.

Second, what makes a “good tree” anyway? In the wild, there’s really no such thing as a “good tree” or “bad tree;” every tree has its natural niche.

In an urban environment, however, some trees are a better fit than others. To ensure a tree can thrive safely in our Bay Area cities, we look for these characteristics:

    • Drought tolerant – In a warmer, dryer California, we are planting drought tolerant trees whenever possible
    • Long lived – Planting trees is an investment. Choosing species with long life spans maximizes the benefits from nurturing that tree to maturity.
    • Naturally good structure – Some tree species have bad branch structure, which can lead to limb drop or increased maintenance costs. Better to choose alternative species.
    • Few known pest issues
    • Native or native mimicking – Trees native to our area provide greater ecological benefit, especially in terms of wildlife habitat. Not all of them are well-suited to urban living, however, so look for native “stand-ins,” too.  For instance, strawberry trees perform better in cities than the native madrone, yet still provide benefits compatible with native wildlife.
    • Minimal maintenance
    • Aesthetics – This is more subjective, of course, but an important consideration. Not least among their gifts, trees provide joy, inspiration, and beauty. It doesn’t hurt to plant a tree you’ll love to look at, and one that matches your landscape aesthetic.

Tools to Use

Need help selecting a tree? Canopy’s Tree Library is here to help you find the right tree. You can use custom searches to find tree attributes important to you.

Some attributes you can select for are:

  • Size: height, spread, growth rate
  • Appearance: form, shade production, litter production, edibility
  • Care: water needs, frost tolerance, problem areas

Consider function, beauty, & other attributes to select—what’s important to you? For example:

  • Striking fall color
  • Showy flowers
  • Handsome structure and bark
  • Leaf size, shape, texture
  • What shade of green do you prefer?
  • Marcescence – some trees hang on to dead leaves through winter
  • Density of shade
  • Fragrance
  • Sentimental reasons
  • Consider an oak tree: Canopy is embarking on some exciting “re-oaking” programs to bring awareness, protection, and increased planting of oak trees. Oaks have great ecological and historical significance to the valley, so we encourage you to consider planting an oak


Trees to Plant Now

Drumroll please! The first 5 in our “top 10” trees to plant now:

City of Palo Alto decorated tree

Tree #1: The Perfect Tree


#1 reason to plant: It’s perfect. It has no flaws, it has pretty flowers, edible fruit, good for wildlife,  lives forever, it costs no money to maintain, it never drops leaves, produces no pollen

Pros: Trees provide more (on average 5x more) in benefits than average maintenance costs

Cons: Not readily stocked at nurseries

Tips: We recommend the nonliving variety

Interesting fact: The “perfect tree” doesn’t exist. We made it up.

Gotcha! Our point here is that there is no “perfect tree.” Every species comes with pros and cons, which is why it’s important to decide what’s most important to you.

The good news? If you’re smart about planting the right tree in the right place, any drawbacks will be far, far outweighed by the many benefits your tree will offer to you, and to the whole community.


Tree #2: London plane tree

Platanus acerifolia

Category: Large deciduous

#1 reason to plant: Grows fast and long-lived

Pros: Adaptable – works in dry and wet sites

Cons: The dust on the undersides of the leaves; fall color is brown and dead looking

Tips: Plant ‘Columbia’ or go with the native Platanus racemosa

Interesting fact: Most prevalent street tree world-wide

Tree #3: Valley oak

Quercus lobata

Category: Very large native deciduous

#1 reason to plant: It was here before your apricot tree

Pros: So important for local ecology; handsome and stately with age

Cons: Big variations in growth habit

Tips: Use locally native stock (you can ask for it, and more people should), especially to avoid powdery mildew

Interesting fact: California’s largest oak; protected species in Palo Alto

Note: Longer lived than coast live oaks (up to 600 years compared to up to 250 years)


Tree #4: Coast live oak

Quercus agrifolia

Category: Large native evergreen

#1 reason to plant: It was here before you were

Pros: Super important for native ecology

Cons: Big native evergreen; prone to powdery mildew; big variance in expected size; susceptible to Sudden Oak Death

Tips: Don’t irrigate during warm months; use locally native stock

Interesting fact: Protected species in Palo Alto

Notes: Awkward as a “teenager” (less dense in later years)

Tree #5: Marina madrone; strawberry tree

Arbutus ‘Marina’; Arbutus unedo

Category: Small evergreens

#1 reason to plant: Native mimicking

Pros: Really cool bark; fruit is delicious to some

Cons: Marina a little temperamental and overused

Tips: Don’t over prune; Marina madrone often found as a standard stem, strawberry tree as a multi-stem

Interesting fact: Parent tree found in the Marina District of SF

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