Winter finds me flitting about the yard, scratching at the sluggish earth, cocking my head from side to side as I eyeball the soil, the shrubs, the sky. My wife says I look like a 220-pound sparrow.
There is method to my madness. Each year I try to add at least one tree to the yard, and January marks the kickoff. Spring is the time to plant the tree, of course, but now is the time to plan it.
Choosing the right spot to put a tree isn't easy. It pays to start looking well in advance. Study the yard now. Have the soil tested. Locate utility lines, water pipes and buried cables, and avoid them all. Tree limbs play havoc with telephone wires; their roots clog sewer pipes, flooding basements. Whole neighborhoods have lost power when underground cables were cut by overzealous gardeners digging blindly in the soil.
Where else don't you want to plant a tree? Alongside the property line. Trees tend to shade other people's gardens, shed leaves and berries on other people's lawns and drop dead branches on other people's cars.
Avoid placing trees near the garden, or you'll be harvesting roots, not tomatoes, from the vegetable patch.
Don't plant trees too near a sidewalk; some roots are strong enough to break the pavement. Also, low-hanging branches can attack the eyes of passers-by. Steer clear of driveways as well. Certain trees produce berries that like to splatter on cars. (If not berries, then birds.)
Also, remember that automobiles, particularly those driven by teen-agers, are drawn to trees anywhere in their path. Likewise, neighborhood dogs. Never plant trees near fire hydrants, no matter how thirsty the trees are.
(Speaking of dogs, don't leave Fido tied to a newly planted tree, or both will be gone when you return.)
Choose a spot close enough to the house to allow you to hear the rustling leaves, but far enough away that a falling limb won't ++ crush the roof. Avoid windy locales: Young trees snap quickly in strong gusts. Generally, fast-growing trees like pines and ornamental pears topple more easily than slow-growers such as ashes and oaks.
Select varieties that meet both your aesthetic and practical needs. Our daughter wants to plant a pine tree exactly 15 feet from the house. The reason? Beth wants to decorate it with Christmas lights, and our extension cord is 15 feet long.
Plant a tree where you'll remember to water it. Hillsides are also nice. Trees need good drainage and prefer a sloping terrain, especially if placed in poor soil. For their part, trees help anchor otherwise barren slopes and curb erosion.
Generally, trees increase the value of one's property. (A rare exception is the ginkgo, an old-fashioned tree that produces a small, round fruit which, when crushed underfoot, smells not unlike a fraternity house the morning after.) Trees provide
privacy, a shelter for wildlife and a barrier against noise pollution. They can hide an unsightly junk pile or hold a youngster's rope swing.
Trees hold hammocks, treehouses and bird feeders. They serve as fire escapes from upstairs windows, and as curtains against nosy neighbors.
Trees make marvelous windbreaks; a line of north-facing pines can trim winter fuel costs by 25 percent. A few mature deciduous trees, placed prudently around the yard, will help reduce air-conditioning bills in summer.
What kind of tree should you plant? Study garden catalogs. Confer with neighbors. Don't be cowed by large trees. Smaller ones may require more maintenance than a towering oak.
Leaf size should be considered when selecting a tree. Is raking a chore or a sport? Maple leaves stick to the ground forever, while birch leaves seem to disappear upon landing. Even evergreens require some maintenance. There's not a leaf rake around that can scoop up the fine brown needles that blanket the lawn beneath our stand of white pines.
Consider a tree's off-season attractions as well as its summer foliage. Some trees reach their peak in autumn, and there is no prettier sight in winter than the bark of the white birch.
Above all, choose a tree that fits your personality. Somber gardeners grow weeping willows; pet lovers like dogwoods; English majors raise hawthorns.
Me? It's time I planted a nut.