Never a Bad Time to Plant a Tree

By Larry Malone

My beautiful little piece of western Loudoun needs attention, but I am weary of all the grass mowing and putting down fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides to grow it more so that I can mow more. It’s not rational, because lawns are not very good for the environment.

In Loudoun, lawn fertilizers, and pest- and weed-killer runoffs are particularly troublesome, polluting our waterways that drain into the Chesapeake Bay. But lawns are not our only problem. We are losing trees.

We need trees for many reasons. They produce oxygen; they clean the bad stuff (carbon dioxide) out of the air that we keep putting into it when we mow grass, and drive to buy more gas to mow again; they clean our water, enabling us to make ice for our drinks when we get hot from mowing; they provide food for people and wildlife; and they beautify our land.

We all walk, drive, hike and ride bikes and horses around and through the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, and get pretty comfortable that the forests will be with us forever. It is a false comfort.

According to the Virginia Department of Forestry, Virginia loses more than 16,000 acres of forest annually, mainly through conversion to home sites, shopping centers, roads and other development. Rapid population growth diminishes our shrinking forestland base. Nationally, our forested areas are being eliminated at an alarming rate. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that more than 40 million acres of private forest could be lost in the next 40 years. This prospect likely has motivated national and global organizations (Nature Conservancy, Arbor Day Foundation,, National Forest Foundation) to adopt programs to plant millions of trees.

In Our Backyard

The Nature Conservancy maintains that trees are the planet’s most efficient consumers of carbon dioxide; one acre of trees extracts about six tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. As trees grow, their leaves pull carbon dioxide and water from the atmosphere, and use the sun’s energy to convert them into chemical compounds such as sugars that feed the trees. Oxygen is a by-product of that chemical reaction. According to American Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization, a healthy 100-foot tree can take 11,000 gallons of water from the soil, and release it to the air as oxygen and water vapor, in a single growing season. Trees are natural sponges, collecting and filtering rainfall, and releasing it slowly into streams and rivers, and are the most effective land cover for water quality maintenance.

Some trees are special, and have witnessed history under their branches. I still regret the decision our homeowners association made shortly after we moved in.A farmer whose property abutted the development realized the proposed street layout would destroy a huge black oak about 170 years old. Very possibly, both Union and Confederate soldiers rode by that young tree. A relatively minor adjustment of the street plan would spare the oak, but would cause a somewhat more circuitous route in and out of the neighborhood. After discussion, convenience won: The tree came down. I am often surprised how compelling an argument convenience makes. I find myself thinking of that tree as I contemplate what to do with my little bit of Loudoun.

I’d like to plant more trees to enhance enjoyment and beauty of my yard.Fortunately, there are several programs to help me understand any problems, identify the best trees for my site, and perhaps help me pay for them.

The Arbor Day Foundationis an excellent online resource for locating trees that will thrive according to the specific aspects of my potential planting spots, and possess the characteristics I desire. Check out the “Tree Wizard” at their site.

Virginia Tech Extensionhas several online publications which aid tree selection for various lawn conditions. “Problem-free Trees for Virginia Landscapes”is especially good at identifying trees that do, and don’t, grow well in Virginia, and why. A partial list of trees native to this area includes black cherry, oaks, sourwood, tupelo, sweetgum, willow and most fruit trees.

The Loudoun Soil and Water Conservation District(LSWCD) has a tree-planting program to offset the costs of planting streamside vegetative buffers on non-agricultural land. Owners of such land in Loudoun County are eligible. The category includes private land, commercial/industrial properties, and homeowners’ associations. Landowners are reimbursed after planting, upon submission of receipts and the recorded declaration of restrictions to preserve the planted area, and a site inspection by LSWCD or county staff.

Virginia Cooperative Extension Serviceoffers a program to help me reduce the amount of fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide I use. Healthy Virginia Lawns volunteers will visit my property, collect soil samples, and do a site analysis. The HVL team then will create a nutrient management plan detailing the nutrients my lawn does, and does not, need, and a schedule for nutrient applications. For several reasons—the HOA being one–I am not yet willing to eliminate my lawn.However, I derive some satisfaction from the fact that with the addition of trees and strategically placed non-lawn ground cover, I am at least reducing the pollution problem, if not eliminating it.

There are many steps I can take to improve enjoyment of my yard, add to the value of my home while saving money, and enhance air and water quality for all of us. I can’t replace a 170-year old black oak, but I can plant a tree under which my brand-new great grandson’s grandchildren can play. Isn’t that a nice thought?

Larry Malone is communications director for Friends of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a 501(c)(3) conservation organization founded in 2007. For more information, go to He also is a member of the Executive Committee of the Loudoun County Rural Economic Development Commission.

Chris Van Vlack of the Loudoun Soil and Water Conservation District assisted preparation of this article. Contact him about LSWCD’s tree planting program atchris.vanvlack@lswcd.orgor 571-918-4530. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. For more information about the organization, go to

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