Trees, Glorious Trees

Can trees really save the planet? As it happens, trees are earth’s best hope for a cooler future. Trees and shrubs, the woody plants, accomplish the mighty feat of removing carbon dioxide from the air, then keeping it bound up so that it can’t “escape” and contribute to global warming.

All plants do “breathe in” carbon dioxide and “breathe out” oxygen. But only the woody plants also keep that carbon from adding to the warming of the planet. This is because of a very simple molecule called methane. Methane happens with the break down of plant matter, and it happens all the time, all around us. It’s not all the infamous cows. Or sheep. It’s happening in your yard, your compost heap, in the marshes, in the forests…everywhere. Bacteria are in every possible spot, in the soil, in the cow’s stomachs. Plants use carbon dioxide to create the sugars that they use to make their leaves, stems, and roots; when those leaves, stems, and roots break down, the bacteria release methane, which is the simplest carbon molecule that exists anywhere.

One carbon, four hydrogens. Hydrogen is the simplest element there is, so methane is the simplest carbon molecule around. Methane is happening and will continue to happen. It’s scary because methane is – depending on which study you read – anywhere from 20 to 84 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. When it finally breaks apart – it can’t actually break down – it forms carbon dioxide and water.

It all sounds so hopeless, but it’s not. Enter the woody plants. Woody plants grab that carbon dioxide, use it for sugars, and then keep it handy for next year, the year after, and after that…this is called “sequestering carbon.” That carbon won’t become methane any time soon, and since it’s all bound up in the plant, it’s out of the air completely. Other plants bind up carbon dioxide too, but they break down so quickly they actually add methane to the equation. Because trees and shrubs will bind up carbon so magnificently, and keep it bound, they are a child’s best hope for a cooler planet. They also work hard cleaning other pollution, so cleaner air is instantly available, too.

This photograph shows a tree/shrub hedge.

A naturally planted, non-lawn area has other benefits too. On top of attracting pollinators and birds, it can help “dry up” soggy areas of your yard, as woody plants “suck” the water out of the soil more efficiently than lawns (and you won’t get your mower stuck in the mud in the soggy area, either). Keeping that water from draining instantly into the Bay or sewers is a huge positive step for Bay water quality. Add that to the wonders of woody plants.

It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? This spring plant a tree. Better yet, plant a lot of them. You don’t have to worry about running your mower around in circles endlessly to avoid hitting all those trees if you consider that you can plant them much closer together than you probably think. Think of a forest – all those trees, cuddled up together, with shrubs and other plants snuggled right up to their trunks. We’ve been taught to see competition – but really what we’re seeing is love.

There is competition for sunlight, for sure. But, because the benefits of growing close up to a tree outweigh the lack of direct sunlight, many, many plants – including other trees – will grow quite happily even in the deep shade of a large oak. Many will grow better there than they will in full sunlight.

Thus, planting a grove – an area where there are trees, shrubs, and other plants – is a great option because it makes mowing around all the plants easier. Mowing around an area is much easier than mowing around each individual plant. This is also the best approach possible for bird and butterfly lovers, as it will provide the variety of heights, which is so attractive to these small creatures.

Trees and shrubs make excellent hedges. Beyond keeping carbon “safe” inside, hedges can make a huge difference in your heating and cooling bills, because they can block wind as well as sunlight in the heat of summer. Even shading the air conditioner will make a difference in your cooling bills. They also give a lovely, private feel to the yard.

Watering the grove or hedge is easier than watering a lawn, too. Just lay a hose with holes in it all around the area you want to water, attach it to another hose connected to your spigot, and turn on the water. Water deeply, then turn off the water and walk away. Once the trees/shrubs are established, they’ll require much less water than a lawn, as they can store it in their tissues. You’ll still need to water during droughts (no rain for a month or more is tough on any plant).

I can almost hear you thinking – “ Okay but what about the deer?” A good question. The only sure-fire way of keeping deer away from young plants is fencing. Fortunately, fencing an area is easier than fencing a single tree, and fencing an area is cheaper than fencing a whole yard. Metal fence stakes and four-foot-high chicken wire will do the job for the several years you will need to protect your plants from marauding deer. There are other methods, but fencing is the most reliable, as well as a “do it once and done” option.

Some of you are, no doubt, wondering if some trees, etc., are better than others to plant. Another excellent question. Yes, some trees are better at cleaning the air than others, though all will do a great job.

Proven better-than-others trees to plant for cleaner air (and carbon sequestration) are horse chestnut; American sweetgum; ponderosa pine; red pine; white pine; London plane; tulip tree (Yellow Poplar); silver maple; Hispaniolan pine; Douglas fir; scarlet oak; red oak; Virginia live oak; and bald cypress. Most of these are native on the Eastern Shore although horse chestnut, London plane, and Hispaniolan pine are the exceptions (according to the USDA, ponderosa pine is native to the Eastern Shore, but not Western Maryland). Bear in mind, not all trees have been studied yet; it is probable that any oak or maple, for example, will perform as well as those tested, and that any pine (not necessarily evergreen tree) will do a superb job, too, which gives a reason for anyone to love a loblolly.

Want to help the planet, the birds and the butterflies? Keep your mower out of the mud. Still feel a little uncertain with how to go about it? Free help is available from several sources. Shore Rivers has tree lists, designs, and other homeowner help for this and other Bay friendly activities. Master Gardeners have a whole new initiative, “Nurture Nature,” that is designed to help with creation of nature friendly non-lawn areas.

So, plant a tree! Plant lots! We’ll all breathe easier.

Maureen Rice is a Master Naturalist living and writing in Talbot County.

More information contact:

  • For Queen Anne’s & Kent Counties, contact Rachel J. Rhodes, Master Gardener Coordinator, at 410-758-0166 or
  • For Talbot County, contact Mikaela Boley, Master Gardener Coordinator, at 410-822-1244 or
  • For Dorchester County, contact Emily Zobel, Master Gardener Coordinator, at 410-228-8800 or
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