Part 1- Tree Care Basics: Honoring 10 Years of Sanford Being a Tree City USA

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Trees are an important part of our Eastern North American landscape. We are famously known for our verdant forests in North Carolina and we pride ourselves on our trees in our landscapes. The City of Sanford has been designated a Tree City USA since late 2013 and plants trees annually, among other things, to fulfill the commitments of the program. There is a lot you can do in your own yard or on your property to take care of and celebrate the trees you have or want to plant.

Selecting the right tree for the right place

“Right plant, right place” is the leading adage of all good gardeners. With more than 450,000 known species of plants around the world, there has to be one that will be good for that spot in your garden or on your property. Don’t force a square peg into a round hole; it is way more work than it is worth.

You need to do a site assessment to know what plant would work best for your site. We recommend observing the spot throughout the day and over a couple of seasons to understand how much sunlight the area gets, how water moves through the space, and how the wind affects the area.

Don’t forget to account for infrastructure near the planting area. Don’t plant a large tree near a septic field or building foundation. Consider the canopy spread of your chosen tree and how it may hang over a building. Different tree species have different rooting habits! Also, how hard is it going to be to get water to your tree, if there is a drought during its first few years of growing?

Finally, now you get to think about the desirable characteristics you want in your tree. Do you want it to be tall or wide? Deciduous or evergreen? If it does lose its

Ginkgo biloba - City of Sanford - Photo by Amanda Wilkins

Ginko biloba – City of Sanford

leaves in the fall, what color do you want the tree to turn in Autumn? Do you want it to make fruit or nuts? Dream big, but also be reasonable, because ALL trees take maintenance, so consider how much maintenance you want to do in the future.

Selecting good planting stock

Now that you have done your site assessment and have researched your desired plants, you need to purchase them. Make sure you are using the scientific name of a plant, so you are getting the exact plant you want! There are hundreds of “cherry” trees, so which one do you want? The scientific name will get you THE one.

North Carolina is home to an incredibly diverse nursery industry and we have producers across the state growing thousands of different species and varieties of plants! You can most likely find the plant you are looking for here. Check out your local nursery and ask someone there if they carry the tree you are looking for. Sometimes they might be able to order it in. Or if you don’t know, you can ask them what would be best for your site, based on your site assessment! If you work with a landscape company, sometimes they can order them in, as well.

Be wary of what you find on the Internet! Plant companies on the Internet are trying to sell you something and they can use beautiful, but sometimes misleading photos to do that. Real, brick-and-mortar nurseries in North Carolina are required to get a license to operate and are subject to inspections. Internet nurseries are not held to the same standards in all cases, depending on what state they operate in, and sometimes are only around for a short amount of time.

When you find a tree you think you want to buy, make sure it is well-rooted into the pot but hasn’t been in the pot too long. Under-rooted plants are a waste of money because you are not buying the full pot-sized root system. Over-rooted plants mean the tree has been in the nursery too long and breaking apart the root system will be challenging and the first year or two of getting the tree established will take a little more effort.

Inspect the tree’s leaves, branches, roots, and trunk for any damage or diseases. Don’t buy a tree with significant damage or wounds, and be discerning with discoloration in leaves. Ask an attendant to verify any issues. If you’ve ordered plants online, make sure to inspect them immediately and do not hesitate to return a damaged or diseased tree! Start with good, healthy stock!


There is a lot that goes into proper tree selection, but it is all worth it for a beautiful, healthy plant that does not take a lot of maintenance! Stay tuned next week for how to plant your tree properly and what kind of maintenance it will need throughout its life.


Amanda Wilkins is the Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.