When we think of fall, we may think of school, pumpkin spice, or trees. Soon the leaves will be turning brilliant shades of red, orange, and yellow. Leaves and acorns will fall to the ground and rustle underfoot. Families may pick apples at orchards. Fall is also a great time to plant trees. The rain and cooler temperatures of fall allow trees to establish roots well before the stress of summer. Here are some of the many reasons why you should consider planting native trees in your yard or community:
Trees provide shade
The memory of hot summer days is fresh in our minds. On very hot days it is uncomfortable and even dangerous to spend too much time outdoors in direct sunlight. The shade from trees provides relief from the hot sun, and the process of transpiration — when leaves release water vapor — cools the surrounding air. Surfaces in shade can be 20 degrees or more cooler than surfaces in direct sunlight, which is why you may prefer to park your car in the shade on hot summer days.
Urban areas have higher temperatures than surrounding areas — called the heat island effect — because buildings and roads absorb and radiate the sun’s heat more than forests and other natural areas. Planting trees in urban communities can reduce the heat island effect. Planting trees to shade the southern exposure of your house can also lower the energy costs of cooling your home.
Trees protect water quality
Trees slow stormwater runoff and their roots help hold soil in place, reducing streambank erosion and silt buildup in waterways. Trees also help filter fertilizer and other pollutants from stormwater runoff before it reaches streams. Trees are so vital for protecting water quality that forested stream buffers 100 feet from perennial streams in Fairfax County are safeguarded as Resource Protection Areas. Most of these stream buffers in Fairfax County are found in stream valley parks, but some private yards may also be in a Resource Protection Area. Trees planted in yards and communities bordering stream valley parks can help expand these valuable buffer areas and reduce streambank erosion.
Native trees support wildlife
Birds, butterflies, and other wildlife depend on native trees for food and shelter. Adult butterflies drink nectar from flowers, but as caterpillars they eat leaves. Each caterpillar species has particular plants they depend on, called host plants. While monarch caterpillars eat milkweed, other caterpillars depend on different plants — most of them trees. Oak trees are the most beneficial for wildlife, feeding over 500 species of caterpillars as well as birds and mammals. Nonnative trees like Gingko feed far fewer species, so yards with mostly nonnative trees support less wildlife.
Songbirds rely on caterpillars for food in the spring and summer, especially when nesting. It takes thousands of caterpillars to raise one brood of birds in a nest. Birds are more likely to nest in yards with native trees, where caterpillars can be found in greater abundance. Throughout other times of the year, native trees also provide birds with berries, nuts, seeds and nectar.
Trees beautify your yard
Native trees like flowering dogwood and Eastern redbud sport beautiful flowers in spring. Red maple, sassafras and hickories turn brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow in the fall. Evergreen trees like Eastern red cedar and American holly remain green throughout the winter and provide berries that feed birds.
Plant NOVA Trees and Watch the Green Grow
The Park Authority is partnering with Plant NOVA Natives on a new project called Plant NOVA Trees. Check out the Celebration of Trees calendar for events this fall, including educational programs about trees at FCPA parks. The Watch the Green Grow outreach program can help advise communities interested in planting trees on common land. Contact the Watch the Green Grow Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org if your HOA or community association would like an educational program or assistance planning your tree planting event.
Author Tami Sheiffer is the coordinator of Fairfax County Park Authority’s Watch the Green Grow outreach program.