An NRV Tree Primer

by Aaron Wilson

Trees help define outdoor space – their canopies often acting like a ceiling. They can be a focal point in the landscape, provide context for our homes and buildings plus seasonal interest for outdoor spaces. – James Ulmer, owner, Back to Nature Landscaping

Plant this, not that!

When it comes to selecting a tree, the hardier the better. With unusual weather patterns on the rise, selecting trees that are drought- and heat-tolerant is a must. Leaf peepers may love the colors of autumn, but choosing trees based on looks and ignoring the shortened lifespan of a tree planted in the wrong hardiness zone (the NRV is 6) may lead to premature death. This happens with crimson maples, which can live 150 years up north, but about 30 years here. If you’re after that ruby red color, go with the Japanese maple.
Avoid the Bradford pear at all costs! These trees, which are soon to be outlawed, have become invasive, meaning they choke out native species. Their brittle trunks and branches grow extremely fast, leading to branch splitting and dangerous falling limbs. Attractive trees include redbud, tulip tree and dogwood. All natives, these three offer beautiful spring blossoms. If you want something fragrant, the star magnolia smells delightful and is considered the hardiest of the magnolias.
Box elders are another nuisance better left to the forests. The saplings are nearly identical to poison ivy, which makes keeping your yard safe a real challenge. Black walnut trees produce a toxic substance (called juglone) that prevents many plants from growing under or near them. Instead, plant a sugar maple. They are breathtaking in autumn – their orange canopy is the backdrop of many an outdoor family photo session. Plus, they tolerate soggy soil, droughts, cold and even some shade. Pine trees are native evergreens and provide much needed color all year. In the spring, their trademark yellow pollen can be a trigger for those who suffer from seasonal allergies.
“Consulting with professional designers and landscapers can assist in the process of determining the best plants for your site and where to place them appropriately,” advises Lori Jones, landscape designer with Back to Nature Landscaping. “This ensures the development of a useful outdoor space that is enjoyable for many
If you select a tree that is already potted (not a sapling), avoid what is known as a bifurcated trunk, as these often split and lead to tree death or property damage. Pay attention to whether the tree is balanced on both sides. You may want to stake the tree for the first year or two, so windy weather or rain don’t cause it to develop a permanent lean.

Plant here, not there!

Some trees love sun and some love shade, so knowing which parts of your yard get the most sun per day is key. American beech trees are native and love shade. They are also important trees for wildlife as their nuts are rich in fats and protein. “Proper planting is key to establishing healthy trees,” Jones continues, “whether beginning with a large specimen or small sapling. Initial placement of a tree is important for long-term viability and ensuring there is no interference with a house, structure or public utility.”
Tree roots can grow as massively as the crown, so plant any tree at least 15 feet from a foundation or retaining wall, 30 feet if it’s a large tree such as oak. If space is limited, use a small ornamental tree or shrub. When planting trees in a row, space them far enough apart so they can all thrive instead of competing for resources. For something attractive, select a variety of evergreen and deciduous trees.


Contrary to what you may see along picture perfect tree-lined streets, building up the soil into a mound around the base of a tree is a bad idea. This practice prohibits much-needed water from reaching the tree’s roots, and encourages a phenomenon known as “root girdling” which can kill a tree faster than you can say Verticillium Wilt. If you dig enough area out and use the right soil for planting, your tree will do fine. With our area being prone to water-tight clay soil, you may need to supplement by using rich organic soil with adequate drainage. Without the right soil, your tree roots are going to make a beeline for the surface, which is a real menace come mowing season.
Tree branches need pruning due to damage or to keep the tree balanced or encourage production of fruits (a necessity for fruit-bearing trees). It’s best to avoid making cuts too close to the trunk, which leaves the tree open to wounding and more susceptible to pathogens and insects. This is especially true of pruning large branches, which pose a greater challenge for the tree to heal and seal off.
So whether you’re going for pretty, for privacy, or for palatable – choose natives that perform well in our number 6 hardiness zone. Keep in mind the fruits of thy labor. Will your tree be dropping helicopter seedlings, a carpet of petals, a bounty of berries, delicious nuts, or spikey balls (like American sweetgum, buckeyes, and chestnuts)? Will the fruits attract bugs, birds or BEARS? The native pawpaw is not only a beloved treat for Baloo the bear (from The Jungle Book / “Bear Necessities” song) but also an excellent treat for humans – and great for breads and puddings.

Speaking of songs, I wrote this little jingle to help you remember:

Redbuds are a Springtime staple.
Nothing beats a Sugar Maple!
Oaks are strong and last forever.
Dogwoods are Virginia’s Treasure!


Text by Emily K. Alberts

Emily K. Alberts is related to the poet Joyce Kilmer who wrote the famous line: “I think that I shall never see, a poem as lovely as a tree.”

You may also like

Leave a Comment