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The right – and wrong – trees to plant in our desert environment

Nevada Appeal Staff Reports

by JoAnne Skelly

I had a call about aspen trees this morning. Betty in Johnson Lane has had aspens in her yard for 10 years. Until this spring, they have done very well, but she noticed dead tips on the trees this year. I asked her if she lived in a stream zone environment, or if she watered the trees all winter. She did neither.

Since aspens are in the willow family, along with poplars, they need lots of water. Their native habitat is a wet environment.

When Betty’s trees were young, we had five consecutive wet winters. This is almost unheard, but it gave her trees a healthy start. Since then, we have had a number of consecutive drought years, causing trees such as aspen to suffer. This is because they are not appropriate for a desert environment.

Trees pump water from their roots to their tips. If there isn’t enough water to reach all those tips, they die back. I told Betty that if her trees are to survive, she will need to water more. She will need to start earlier in the spring, water heavily in the summer, and throughout the fall and winter, never to let the soil dry out.

Aspen are not on the recommended list of trees for our area because they are not drought-tolerant. I recently saw them being sold at a local grocery store and wondered how many people would plant them in their yards, not being aware of all their down sides.

When aspens are in the wrong environment, their water needs, suckering tendency (sending up shoots throughout a lawn) and invasive, shallow roots lead to problems. They are also susceptible to diseases.

There is another outlet for obtaining trees not suited for our area. The National Arbor Day Foundation is giving away trees for joining their foundation. If you join, ask them not to send the following water-thirsty trees: silver and sugar maple, weeping willow or tuliptree.

Silver maple and willow have invasive surface roots that can wreak havoc on pipes, foundations and fences. They also can be hazardous, as their limbs can break easily.

Silver maple attracts multitudes of box elder bugs. Willows attract aphids. Sugar maples do not tolerate our dry, windy winters and are heavy water users. Tuliptrees prefer rich acid soils, something not available in most Northern Nevada gardens.

Choosing the right tree for the area now will save you work, water and headaches in the future.

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For gardening information, call me at 887-2252 or e-mail skellyj@unce.unr.edu. Or, call your local University of Nevada Cooperative Extension office. Check out horticulture publications at http://www.unce.unr.edu. You can also “Ask a Master Gardener” at mastergardeners@unce.unr.edu.

JoAnne Skelly is the Carson City/Storey County Extension educator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.