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Thursday - March 05, 2009

From: NYC, NY
Region: Northeast
Topic: Trees
Title: Distance from existing structures to plant a tree in New York
Answered by: Barbara Medford


I would like to plant a large maple or birch near my suburban home. How far away from my home, garage, or any buildings should the seed be planted?


Not knowing which species of each tree you were planting, we first found those that were native to New York. At the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, we always recommend the use of plants native not only to North America but to the area in which they are being grown. The maples native to New York are Acer rubrum (red maple), Acer saccharinum (silver maple) and Acer saccharum (sugar maple). Birches native to New York are Betula lenta (sweet birch) and Betula populifolia (gray birch). These are probably not the only species of either tree that are native to New York, but give us information to work with in helping you with your decision. They should all have enough similarities to permit generalizing about how these trees would perform in an urban landscape, and how far from structures either should be planted. 

To begin with Acer rubrum (red maple), this tree grows 40 to 60 feet in cultivation, has a narrow or rounded compact crown, prefers slightly acid, moist soil, is tolerant of ozone and slightly tolerant of sulfur dioxide, but not particularly urban tolerant. Red maple has moderate to rapid growth, but can be somewhat weak-wooded and may suffer storm damage. Roots can raise sidewalks, but have a less aggressive root system; surface roots beneath canopy can make mowing difficult. This USDA Forest Service article goes into more detail. Grafting is no longer done on this tree, as incompatibility was causing grafted trees to break apart. Seeds should be from species native to the area. 

Betula populifolia (gray birch) is a narrow, columnar single or multi-trunked tree, 35 to 50 feet, grows rapidly but short-lived. Branches droop as the tree grows but need little pruning to develop a strong structure. Grows easily in almost any soil and level of moisture, but needs a slightly acid soil. Propagation is by seed or cuttings. Again, the USDA Forest Service has comprehensive facts on this tree.

As to the exact distance either should be planted from foundations or sidewalks, that becomes a matter of personal judgment. Soil subsidence around foundations is more often the result of the soil becoming too dry. It is true that tree roots will range out from their trunk as much as twice the diameter of the tree crown in search of moisture but this is usually not a prime factor in foundation damage.  The maple is notorious for surface roots, and will certainly buckle sidewalks and driveways over time.

In general terms regarding the planting of trees near structures, the ground area at the outside edge of the canopy, referred to as the dripline, is especially important. The tree obtains most of its surface water here, and conducts an important exchange of air and other gases. The most critical area lies within 6 to 10 feet of the trunk. Paving should be kept out of the dripline and no closer than 15 feet from the tree trunk.

Acer rubrum

Acer rubrum

Betula populifolia

Betula populifolia






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