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Omaha Magazine

Planting Trees That Will Withstand Omaha's Next Big Storm

Oct 01, 2021 01:52PM ● By Patrick McGee
illustration of tree in wind

Design by Mady Besch

Whether you’re looking to plant on a blank canvas in your new subdivision or replace a grand, old silver maple lost in the record-breaking windstorm Omaha experienced this summer, homeowners should consider several factors before making a tree nursery purchase. Among the biggest considerations, a species’ suitability to our climate and weather.

John Fech, a certified arborist and educator with 34 years of experience, said there’s a big variety of trees that do well in eastern Nebraska—and the best-selling species aren’t necessarily the best suited. Locally, he advises planting bald cypress, black gum, catalpa, chinkapin oak, ginkgo, golden raintree, hackberry, hickory, honeylocust, hophornbeam, Kentucky coffeetree, pecan, red oak, sawtooth oak, swamp white oak, tuliptree, yellow buckeye, and yellowwood. 

All of these varieties are tolerant of  Nebraska weather, which often includes wind gusts. “None of the trees I’ve recommended will have a strong tendency to blow over [in a windstorm],” Fech said. He noted that many popular trees, such as cottonwood, silver maple, and Bradford pear, littered yards and streets after 80 mph straight-line winds swept through Omaha in July.

A tree’s suitability for each planting site should be assessed individually, Fech added. Suitability can be determined using the Missouri Botanical Garden plant finder index, which offers guidance for sunlight exposure and water/moisture conditions, and rates a tree’s vulnerability to pests and diseases found in your area. “None are immune or totally resistant [to pests],” Fech said, noting that Japanese beetles eat just about everything. Planters should be familiar with care of their selected species.

Dan Lambe, president of Arbor Day Foundation in Lincoln, said when planting in an area occupied by a downed tree, it is usually preferred to remove the old stump and most of the roots, as “the old roots can get in the way of new growth." If removal is prohibitive, “you should consider moving the location five or more feet away,” he added. Lambe recommended doing the same when planting to replace an uprooted tree. “It may be necessary to fill the hole with new soil, which can mean settling could occur,” resulting in the new tree sinking to an unhealthy level. Moving a distance away reduces this risk.

Promoting strong lateral root growth that can withstand sustained winds requires conscientious tree planting, Fech said. “Dig a wide planting hole, but not a deep one—just deep enough to set the root mass in.” The hole should be three times the size of the tree’s root mass. This will allow the roots to move into the disturbed site without being obstructed by unbroken soil. 

Avoid using any peat moss, compost, or topsoil in the planting hole itself, Fech said. Although a seemingly good idea, filling the hole with compost will cause the roots to preferentially stay in the planting hole rather than spread, seeking nutrients and, consequently, the tree will not develop strong lateral roots. He also noted that the root balls of nursery trees will likely be tightly tangled. Muss them up, he said. “It harms them a little bit in the short run, but the roots will grow back extensively laterally. If they aren’t loosened, they will stay in the hole.”

Staking trees may also be a good idea in windswept areas to prevent them from blowing completely over, Fech said. “They should be tied loosely so they can sway a couple of inches and develop strong lateral roots.” Blowing actually promotes more growth and long-term stability. He advises removing the stakes after a short time, however, so that trees don’t become dependent on them. Six months to a year is usually sufficient. 

Overall, planting trees is fairly simple, and the same techniques can be applied across the board. Choose the right varieties and utilize these tips, and your newly planted trees will withstand the winds of tomorrow.   

The Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder can be found  at missouribotanicalgarden.org/plantfinder/plantfindersearch.aspx.

This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Omaha Home. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.