Seeking Shade

Barefoot woman relaxing outdoors in the garden in her sunhat lying on the grass in the shade of a tree with a long cold drink in her hand.

If not for shade trees, there wouldn’t be any summer backyard barbecues. No relaxing in a hammock with a good book, enjoying a cold glass of lemonade under a cool, leafy canopy. “On a hot summer day, there can be at least a 10-degree difference from sun to shade,” says David Holmes, the county director for the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension Marion County. “And shade trees can also reduce home cooling costs.”

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, trees can shade the ground and pavement around a home, reducing heat radiation and cooling the air before it reaches your home’s walls and windows. A single shade tree can save a homeowner up to 20 percent on energy costs. Additionally, shade trees improve air quality, reduce storm runoff, contribute to a smaller carbon footprint and beautify our neighborhoods.

What To Plant

The go-to shade trees are deciduous trees, which shed all or most of their leaves each year and include oaks, birches, elms and sweetgums. In Ocala/Marion County, the iconic live oak is the most recognizable deciduous tree.

“The problem with live oaks is that they are generally too large for residential properties,” Holmes explains. “They can grow to 60 feet tall and 60 feet wide and their large root system can create issues for power lines, drain fields, driveways, foundations and sidewalks. Live oaks need lots of room, so they’re best for large lots only.”

Even if a live oak won’t work for your yard, there are other good options.

“The swamp chestnut oak is a good alternative for an average residential lot. In time, these trees do grow up to 70 feet tall, but have a canopy spread of only 40 feet,” says Holmes. “I planted one from a seedling 15 years ago and it’s about 20 feet tall now. They have a lifespan of 130-150 years.”

Holmes also recommends the Shumard oak and the nuttal oak for large residential lots. For a smaller lot, Holmes notes that “the medium-sized trees like the dahoon holly or overcup oak might be good ones to consider.” 

When, Where And How To Plant

“Trees can be planted any time, but spring is preferable because trees are coming out of dormancy and you have better control of the watering schedule,” says Holmes. “By the time summer temperatures arrive in late May, trees should be well on their way to being established. And about the time you are getting really tired of watering the tree, the summer rains arrive.”

As with all things, location is important for tree planting.

“Choose the location for planting a tree carefully. You want to plant keeping in mind how big the mature tree will be. Plant away from drain fields, sidewalks, driveways, foundations and roofs,” Holmes cautions. “It’s not a bad idea to call your local utility company before planting to avoid overhead and underground power lines.”  

When it comes to the biggest shade tree problems he addresses, Holmes doesn’t hesitate.

“Trees are often planted too deep,” he says. “Planting a tree too deep robs it of oxygen. UF/IFAS recommends planting trees in a hole that is twice as wide as the root ball and slightly shallower, about an inch above the surrounding soil.” 

And then there’s the root ball.

“People don’t break apart the root ball before planting,” he explains. “Roots of trees raised in round pots tend to circle. If the root ball isn’t broken apart, this circling will continue in the ground.”

Holmes notes that making these planting mistakes will lead to “a tree that grows for maybe four or five years then doesn’t seem to get any bigger. Finally the top branches begin to thin out for lack of oxygen. Roots need oxygen to thrive and 70 percent of all roots are in the top 18-24 inches of soil.”

Watering And Beyond

Once a shade tree has been planted properly in the right location, the next most important thing is watering.

“At planting, form a shallow moat about 3 feet out from the trunk in all directions, about 8 inches deep,” says Holmes. “Using a garden hose, fill the moat with water until it reaches the brim. Repeat every day for two weeks. At the beginning of the third week, water every other day for the next three weeks, then two times a week three and four days apart for an additional six weeks. Then once a week until the tree is established.”

After our summer rains end, Holmes recommends “watering a new tree once a week during the dry months of October and November while trees are still entering dormancy.”

As the tree grows, UF/IFAS recommends that all young oaks be pruned routinely for the first 15-20 years. This will develop a healthy branch structure and maintain one dominant trunk for strength and stability. 

Ready to plant your own shade trees? The sooner you do, the sooner you can hang up that hammock. 

Learn More › David Holmes, UF/IFAS Extension Marion County Director › dholmes@ufl.edu 

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