Metro-East Living

Choosing the right tree to fit your yard

Time to plant trees

Caseyville tree farmer offers fall tree-planting tips
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Caseyville tree farmer offers fall tree-planting tips

Looking for a mature tree to plant in your yard?

Now is the time to do it, but choices may make your head spin.

Sugar maple or serviceberry? Silver linden or silver maple? Bur oak or bald cypress? Dogwood or yoshimo cherry?

“Some clients bring a list of trees they like, then we look at their budget,” said Rich Crain, 58, who owns Crain Tree Farm & Nursery in rural Caseyville. “The client needs the biggest tree for the least amount of money.”

How much does a 10- to 12-foot seedless maple cost? About $140.

“I am saving people time,” he said, of his good-sized trees. “In our operation, people want trees to look closer to being mature. We go by caliper inch. We measure (the diameter) six inches from the ground. A two-caliper is as big as a soda can. It’s 8, 10, 12 feet tall, big enough to look like something.”

And still move relatively easily.

“They weigh 300 pounds, but we roll and dirt them on a cart,” said Rich.

Nice crowns, nice foliage

On a breezy Saturday morning, Rich and assistant Marvin Docter tag-teamed their way around the farm, helping folks find the right tree from the 600 to 700 varieties. Rich carried a little pruner to take care of errant branches. Both carried a ton of knowledge.

Jackie Brenner and Mark Halwachs tapped into that knowledge choosing three trees for Highmount School in Swansea. She’s a 7th-grade teacher who leads the students’ Visionary Club; he’s the superintendent and an avid beekeeper.

Marvin led them to a selection of sugar maples.

600-700 Varieties of trees on Crain Tree Farm

650 Species of animals that depend on oak trees

“These are October Glories,” he said, carefully avoiding sprinklers trained on trees. “They have nice crowns, nice foliage. We have sold lots of them.”

Next, something a little different.

“This is a bur oak here,” said Marvin, of the tree that grows to 100 feet and has large acorns.

“I don’t want those at school,” said Jackie. “I think a white oak would be good.”

Appropriate. The white oak is the Illinois state tree.

“We want the kids to help dig the holes. Did you say November would be the best time?”

“Once they lose their green,” said Rich. “Once they go into dormancy is the best time to move them, when they are going to sleep.”

They considered a black gum, an autumn standout with leaves that turn various hues of yellow, orange, bright red and purple.

“It’s botanical name is Nyssa sylvatica, or black tupelo,” said Rich. “A plant can have more than one name, depending on what part of the country you are in. The right way to identify a tree is by its botanical name. ...”

They settled on a pond cypress that will grow to be 50 to 60 feet tall with a 10- to 15-foot spread. The easy-to-maintain tree likes getting its feet wet.

When it comes time to transplant the trees, Rich will use his German digger.

Once they go into dormancy is the best time to move them, when they are going to sleep.

Rich Crain on why late October is planting time

“This thing is so fast it can scoop 41 trees in 45 minutes,” he said.

The trees, each between 12 and 15 feet tall, will be planted Nov. 21 near the school property border with Erb Equipment.

Family trees

Nostalgia sometimes influences tree-buyers. Maybe they want the kind that stood in Grandma’s yard. Collectors like unusual varieties. The Twyman brothers just want a tree they can climb.

Owen Twyman, 10, and Drew, 8, were tree shopping with their family, who live in Troy.

“We have gotten one, two, three ....” said their mom, Amy, counting. “Eight trees. They are great. We always get the big ones like this. I think it’s a maple.”

They’ve planted maples, seedless ash and weeping cherry.

When was the last time the boys were up in a tree?

“The (brandywine) maple, I climbed it yesterday,” said Owen of the front-yard tree.

Any trick to it?

“You just have to have upper body strength,” he said.

They reminded landscaper Marvin of his tree-climbing days. His mom would come out to look for him and he’d try to throw his voice to make her think he wasn’t up in the tree.

“She’d say, ‘Get down from there.’ “‘In a minute.’” ‘Right now.’ Next thing I knew, that willow switch comes at me. How fast can I get down from here?”

Weeping willow fans

Dominic Giovando, 3, waded into a grove of weeping willow trees.

Parents Vince and Andrea, holding sleepy Cecelia, 1, watched him peek out.

The willows were on their wish list, along with fruit trees — apple and peach — and trees that offer fall color.

What do they like about graceful willows?

“That our kids can play in them,” said Andrea. “(Dominic) thinks it’s a clubhouse.”

“They’re a full tree and have a lot of character,” said Vince.

The Giovandos tagged three willows, choosing a total of 13 trees, including oak, maple and pine, that will be transplanted to their two-acre Troy property the last weekend of October. Two willows will go in front and one in back.

“They don’t have a tree in their yard,” said Rich. “The best place to start is on the southwest side of the house because that gets the hottest sun of the day. Start with two or three fast-growing shade trees ... Fruit trees like an area on a slope and like good air flow.”

A thing for trees

Rich’s tree business began as a hobby.

“I was working for a big agriculture company,” he said. “I had an agriculture degree from Carbondale. I started growing Christmas trees out of college. I started planting trees in 1980 as a hobby. I thought, I should go to SWIC. When I took classes at SWIC, I met Charlie (Giedeman, then the school’s horticulture director. He writes the News-Democrat’s gardening column). I was inspired by his passion.”

Trees became Rich’s passion.

“I started in ’81 with a thousand; in ’82, 2,000,” he said. “The most I ever planted was 16,000. I probably plant an average of 7,000 to 10,000 a year. We shoot for 90 percent livability. All the rain this year worked good for everything but the white pine. You know why? The white pine’s genetic background is for sandy, well-drained soils. We do not have sandy, well-drained soils.”

3 How many times larger that the root ball to dig the hole

41 How many trees the German digger can scoop up in 45 minutes

Rich, 58, and wife Ellen, who have three grown sons, live at the back of the 55-acre property that he owns with his three siblings.

“I am the only one doing this,” he said. “My wife has a good job at the base.”

Rich likes variety in his own yard.

“I have oaks, maples, yoshino cherries. In the shade, I have redbud and dogwood.

“I am trying to have a little bit of arboretum, one of everything at least,” he said. “I’m starting a fruit orchard. I live in back. Since I live here, we kind of try different species. Dr. Dan Stocker, he added some wonderful plants to my collection, exotic evergreens.”

Each tree he passes sparks a comment.

“Oaks feed more species of animals than any other tree,” he said. “Over 650 species of animals depend on oak trees.”

The trees blooming pink? Seven sons trees.

The 2-foot-long crevice on a tree’s trunk? Sunscald.

“If they are facing south, and hadn’t been acclimated, they are tender on the south side and get a little sunscald. It’s actually sunburn. The blue tag we put on trees indicates north. When we transplant the tree into a yard, we set the north side facing north again so it doesn’t get sunburn.”

The sun damage allows borers to get into the trees, but most will heal.

“I’ve had oak trees I have planted that have a torn chunk out of the bark. Mother Nature will take care of it. If it’s going to live, it will grow over within two years.

“Plants are like people. They have the potential to do something, but have to be in the right environment.”

Tree-planting and other tips

  • Choosing a tree. Check the Missouri Botanical Garden website for Plants of Merit and see what you like. Grow native, if possible. Native trees don’t even need fertilizer; natural soil should be enough, said Rich Crain. “True native trees hold up in the extremes of our environment.
  • Most popular tree. Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis), a flowering ornamental tree that easily adapts to different soil conditions. The white to pink flowers combine with a light almond-like fragrance to make it a showstopper. It grows relatively fast. Its medium-sized stature makes it easy to incorporate into almost any landscape.
  • Age of trees people buy there. Six to 10 years
  • Best place to start. The southwest side of the house because it gets the hottest sun of the day. Start with two or three fast-growing shade trees.
  • Before you plant. Have all underground utilities and obstructions located. Call Joint Utility Locating Information for Excavators at 1 800 829-0123 or
  • Have soil analyzed. You want to put the right tree in the right spot.
  • Dig in. Dig a shallow, broad planting hole as much as three times the diameter of the root ball, because roots must push through surrounding soil in order to establish.
  • About planting. “The biggest problem we see is people plant too deep,” said Rich. “You can almost put a ball on top of the ground and it would do better.” Rhyme to live by: Plant them high, they won’t die. Plant them low, they won’t grow.
  • Trunk flare. Where roots spread at the tree base. Should be partially visible after the tree has been planted.
  • Straighten tree. View the tree from several directions before you begin backfilling. Fill the hole about 1/3 full and pack soil around the base of the root ball. Loosen fabric and string. Be careful not to damage the trunk or roots.
  • Mulch base of tree. It acts as a blanket to hold moisture, moderates soil temperature extremes, and reduces competition from grass and weeds. Some good choices are leaf litter, pine straw, shredded bark, peat moss or composted wood chips. A 2- to 4-inch layer is ideal. Grass is highly competitive. Keep turf killed from around the dripline of your tree.
  • Watering time. Keep soil moist but not soaked; overwatering causes leaves to turn yellow or fall off. Water trees at least once a week, barring rain, and more frequently during hot weather. “Water your plant before you take off your hose,” said Rich. “It will overwinter better, especially if it’s exotic, something not native. Water in the winter. For the roots of plants, cold and wet is good. Cold and dry is bad.”
  • A favorite saying. “Remember the Greek proverb? A great society has old men planting shade trees knowing they will never be able to sit in their shade.”

Crain Tree Farm and Nursery

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