LET’S FACE IT, birch trees have it easy nowadays. There was a time when their can’t-be-missed white bark made them the most useful and practical trees in the forest.
American Indians used the paper-like peeling bark when making canoes, baskets, utensils and wigwam covers. And early lumberjacks used birch bark as waterproofing underneath the cedar shingles of their bunkhouses.
Today, birch trees in the landscape setting lead much more regal and pampered lives. Their strikingly attractive bark and lovely leaves, especially in fall when they turn golden yellow, make them natural standouts among other backyard plantings.
Most birches are native to northern parts of the United States and southern Canada. In their natural habitat they’re often found in cool moist areas along riverbanks, where they get plenty of sunlight. Taking cues from their natural setting is the secret to making these beautiful trees work in the yard. Without lots of moisture and sunlight, birches are destined to struggle and eventually fall prey to their No. 1 enemy—the bronze birch borer.
The destructive larvae of these beetles tunnel into birch trees and interrupt the flow of sap, eventually killing the trees. The good news is well-maintained healthy birches are more resistant to borers and other less damaging yet persistent pests, such as leaf minors and aphids, that feast on the foliage.
The most important thing you can do to protect birches is provide plenty of moisture. This keeps the trees stress-free and strong, and the pests move on to feast on weaker trees.
While birch trees are fast growers (they grow up to 2 feet each year), they are relatively short-lived trees and rarely top more than 60 feet. Before purchasing one for your yard, first determine if you can meet its needs.
Birches prefer full sun to partial shade in woodland settings and can be planted in groupings as they appear in the wild. To take full advantage of their beautiful bark, plant them in front of a backdrop of evergreens where they’ll stand out all year long.
Because tree roots spread wide and shallow, dig a planting hole about 3 to 5 times wider than the root ball. Locate the root flare (the bulge above the roots) just above the soil line after removing the tree’s container or burlap. After planting, mulch 2 to 4 inches deep around the tree, but keep it from touching the trunk.
Deep water your birch weekly during the growing season, especially during dry spells. A great way to ensure thorough watering is to place a soaker hose around the base of the tree’s drip line (the width of its upper branches) and water for several hours.
It’s best to prune the trees during their dormant season. In the late winter, pruning will be messy because of the free flow of sap, but it won’t harm the trees.
Yes, birches take a little more care and consideration than other backyard trees. But if they work in your yard, you’ll find few trees that reward your effort the way birches do. –Birds and Blooms