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Trees for Wildlife

9 Steps for Selecting & Installing Wildlife-Friendly Trees

Enjoying the great outdoors isn’t just about leaving your house and heading to a local park or waterway. It’s also about appreciating all the natural things living right outside your door.

People living in rural or suburban areas can often see a variety of flora and fauna, and even those living in urban areas can likely appreciate birds and a bit of greenery.

But no matter where you live, you can almost certainly attract more ambassadors of the natural world by adding a few wildlife-friendly trees to your property — even if you don’t have a proper “yard” at all.

However, you have to go about this in the correct manner.

Trees aren’t exactly cheap to purchase, and poorly installed trees can cause very expensive problems down the road. For that matter, some trees attract more wildlife than others.

We’ll try to help set you up for success below by sharing nine things you should think about when adding new wildlife-friendly trees to your property.

9 Things to Think About When Selecting & Installing Wildlife-Friendly Trees

You’ll always want to consider the unique factors at play for your specific situation, but the tips shared below will prove helpful in most scenarios.

1. Start by learning your USDA hardiness zone.

USDA.gov

Trees have varying tolerances to low temperatures.

Jacaranda trees will struggle and potentially die if the mercury falls below the freezing point, while sugar maples take brutal New England winters in stride.

So, one of the first things you need to do when selecting trees is to identify the USDA plant hardiness zone you live in.

This is essentially a data set that groups different locations based on the average minimum winter temperatures experienced in each. Numbers and letters are used to identify the various zones.

For example, most of south Georgia is categorized as 9a, which correlates to an average winter minimum temperature of 20 to 25 degrees Fahrenheit (-6.7 to -3.9 degrees Celsius). In most years, that’s as cold as it ever gets.

By contrast, northern Minnesota is characterized as 3b, because it’s average minimum winter temperature is between -35 and -30 degrees Fahrenheit (-37.2 to -34.4 Celsius). 

By identifying your hardiness zone, you can start narrowing down the species that’ll grow well in your area.

2. Decide where you’d like to install the trees on your property.

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Site selection is a crucial factor to consider when planting any trees, and it’s even more important when you’re specifically setting out to plant trees that’ll attract wildlife.

For starters, there are safety issues at play.

You don’t want to plant trees that produce food for deer right along a busy roadway, nor do you want to plant bird-attracting trees near big windows. It’s also worth considering whether your new trees will attract rodents. If they may, you probably want to plant them some distance from your home.

You’ll also want to install the trees near other wildlife resources to have the best chance of attracting wildlife. This may mean planting trees near a backyard pond that provides water or a dense thicket that provides shelter and nesting opportunities.

Additionally, you may want to avoid placing your new trees in areas that see a lot of people traffic, which may disturb the animals, thereby reducing the trees’ wildlife-attracting benefits.  

Finally, it’s also worth considering convenient sight lines. If you hope to see deer, birds, raccoons, foxes or other animals, you’ll want to install the trees in a place they can easily be seen from your living room window or back porch.

3. Identify the growing conditions in the installation location.  

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Even though your entire yard will exist in the same hardiness zone, different locations within your yard will experience different growing conditions. And sometimes these differences will be quite significant.

For example, the temperatures, sun exposure, and soil chemistry will be different in the middle of your lawn than they would be in a forested area on your property.

And because you’ll need to consider these factors when selecting the tree species to plant, it makes sense to go ahead and collect all of this information and make a list.

Minimally, you’ll want to include the following on your list:

  • The level of sun exposure: Is the area bathed in sunlight, cloaked in shadow, or somewhere in between?
  • The type of soil: Does the area have fertile loam, densely packed clay, or loose sand?
  • The soil pH: Knowing how alkaline or acidic your soil is can help you avoid headaches in the future.
  • The soil’s drainage characteristics: Does water drain from the area quickly or does it linger for days following rain?
  • Other plants or trees currently growing in the vicinity: In addition to creating shade, other vegetation may compete with your new trees. Some species even release toxic chemicals into the soil to prevent other plants from growing.
  • The relative elevation of the site: Is the spot you intend to plant the trees at the highest point on your property, which stays relatively dry, or is at a low point, where water tends to collect?
  • Any stressors present: Stressors include things like pollution, salt water spray, structures, compacted soil, or strong winds.

Also, while this won’t really vary from one site on your property to the next, you’ll want to look up the average annual precipitation for your zip code.

Once you’ve collected all of this information, you’ll be ready to move on to the next part of the tree-selection process.

4. Decide how much effort you’re willing to invest in the tree’s care.

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Some trees require more maintenance than others. And these maintenance requirements may vary over the lifetime of the tree.

For example, most newly planted trees will require supplemental water for the first year after they’re installed. But some species may require supplemental water for many years to come if your area doesn’t receive enough rainfall.

Some trees also require on-going maintenance in the form of frequent pruning. Others produce tons of litter in the form of fruit, leaves, flower petals, or woody debris (such as the shed bark of birch trees).

Nevertheless, there are no right or wrong answers with regard to maintenance. If you’re willing to invest the time and effort to provide high levels of maintenance, then you don’t have to shy away from birches, mulberries, walnuts, or other high-maintenance species.

But you need to consider this issue carefully before selecting the species to plant.

5. Identify the trees that provide resources your target wildlife species need. 

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Setting out to attract “wildlife” in the generic sense is not very helpful.

Different animals require different resources from trees and the greater habitat, and few trees provide resources that are beneficial to a broad array of wildlife species.

In other words, if you intend to attract hummingbirds, you’ll want to select trees with nectar-producing flowers, such as painted buckeyes (note that hummingbird-attracting flowers needn’t be red, as is commonly thought — they visit flowers of many different colors).

If you intend to help support local deer populations, it’s hard to beat the acorns of white oak trees, but squirrels and chipmunks often find hickory nuts even more delicious.

Or, if you want to provide nesting opportunities for birds, you may want to consider species that produce dense foliage, such as American hollies or eastern red cedars. Both of these trees also provide food in the form of berries or cones, giving you two-for-one value.

6. Make a list of trees that satisfy all of the factors discussed thus far.

selecting wildlife-friendly trees
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By this point, you should know:

  • Your USDA hardiness zone
  • Where on your property you plan to install the trees
  • The soil characteristics of the site
  • The growing conditions of the site (sun exposure, rainfall, etc.)
  • The amount of maintenance you’re willing to provide
  • The tree species that’ll provide resources to the wildlife you’d like to attract

This means it’s time to start deciding which species to plant!

If you’re already have some familiarity with trees, you can probably start by making a list of potential choices. From there, you can delete any that don’t fit the criteria above.

For example, you may initially consider installing a shortleaf pine, but realize that the area available lacks enough sun exposure to support such a sun-loving tree. Or perhaps you were initially considering a river birch tree for the damp area in the back of your house, but realize you don’t want to be picking up bark all the time.

On the other hand, if you’re not yet familiar with trees, it would be more efficient to visit the website of a local nursery or retailer. Using whatever tech options are available (some sites allow you to make lists), create a list of the species available, and then research their needs so that you can whittle down the list.

7. Avoid invasive species; stick to native trees.

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There are at least two reasons it is important to select native species whenever possible.

First of all, you don’t have to worry about native species “escaping” and growing in the surrounding area. Native trees may very well produce new seedlings over time, but that won’t usually create a problem as native plants have natural checks on their growth and spread.

Non-native species – particularly those that are invasive – do not have these natural checks, which can allow them to take over entire habitats given enough time.

Secondly, unlike non-native trees, native species tend to produce resources that are attractive to the animals living in your area. Deer, chipmunks, cardinals, and other animals have spent millennia depending on the foliage, seeds, and fruit of native trees, so foraging in and around native species is hardwired in their natural behaviors.

If you simply cannot find suitable native species to install, at least consider trees that are native to adjacent areas, rather than somewhere else on the globe. In other words, you may consider planting sugar maples, even though Florida maples are technically the native species in your region.

8. Purchase the proper kind of tree stock for the situation.

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Trees are typically sold in one of three ways: bare root, balled-and-burlapped, and container grown. Each offers a different set of benefits and drawbacks, making some better for different situations than others.

  • Bare root trees are generally small and arrive without any soil on their roots at all. These trees are generally very affordable, easy to handle, and begin establishing themselves quickly, but they must be planted in the early spring before the buds swell. They will also be quite small when you receive them, so you’ll need to be very patient.
  • Balled-and-burlapped trees are typically available in the largest sizes, which is great for homeowners seeking to attract wildlife quickly. However, they are massive and sometimes require heavy machinery to move. They also take a long time to become established, as the majority of their roots are severed during processing.
  • Container-grown trees are often the most common option at retail nurseries and big box stores, as they’re the most convenient from a commerce point of view. However, they may become root-bound while sitting in the container and they rarely produce deep roots very well. They’re also the most expensive of the three options (relative to the tree’s size).

None of these options is ideal for all cases; you’ll simply have to select the best type of stock for your situation. Also, it is important to note that some trees aren’t available in all three forms, which means you’ll have fewer options.    

9. Install the tree correctly.

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With trees in hand, it’s time to start installing them! But unfortunately, many people fail to allocate enough time or invest the necessary effort to do so properly. This can prevent the tree from becoming properly established and predispose it to problems in the coming years.

Volumes have been written about the proper way to install a tree, but the basics are fairly simple and best expressed as a series of dos and don’ts.

Do:

  • Dig a wide but relatively shallow hole for the tree.
  • Ensure that the root flare (the portion of the trunk that increases in size where the roots start) remains above the soil surface.
  • Be very gentle with the roots and spread them evenly through the planting hole.
  • Fill the hole with the same dirt you removed to create the hole.
  • Tamp the refilled dirt gently.
  • Water the roots and soil thoroughly once you’re finished.
  • Consider staking the tree to prevent it from toppling. 

Don’t:

  • Bury the roots more than a few inches deep.
  • Prune the tree during installation.
  • Add any fertilizer during the first several months.
  • Cut any roots unless they’re girdling the trunk or other, larger roots.

Special Notes for Apartment Dwellers and Others with Limited Space

As we mentioned at the outset, wildlife-friendly trees can work in just about any situation — even apartment balconies and front porches. You just need to select species (and specimens) that are suitable for the space you have available.

Here are a few tips for nature-lovers living in these kinds of situations:

  • Birds may nest in container-grown trees with dense foliage. Columnar hollies or junipers are often available in balcony- or porch-friendly sizes, where they’ll provide nesting opportunities for small songbirds.
  • The combination of a birdfeeder and some small trees will work better than either works alone. Adding a tree that provides nesting and perching opportunities to the same area with a birdfeeder will attract even more birds.
  • Don’t forget about insects! Insects certainly qualify as wildlife, and unfortunately, many native species are in peril. So, give them a hand by installing trees with nectar-producing flowers on your porch or balcony. In addition to honeybees and butterflies, you may even attract things like preying mantises.

Planting wildlife trees in your yard is a great way to start enjoying the natural world when you can’t get out and hit the trail. Just remember that trees take time to become established, and it’ll take the animals a while to notice them.

So, be patient.

We want to hear about your tree-planting experiences. Have you added new trees to your yard that proved particularly helpful? Have you had problems getting your new trees established?

Let us know in the comments!

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