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How to Grow: Birch
Bloom Period and Seasonal Color
Has attractive green catkins in spring, but mostly grown for the arching shape, colorful bark and yellow fall color
Mature Height x Spread
30 to 40 feet x 12 to 15 feet
Native, fall color, deer resistant
This native, deciduous, North American tree is commonly found in New England forests, but also makes a great landscape tree in the yard. Birch trees are one of New England’s poet Robert Frost’s favorites for their arching shape, beautiful fall foliage color and attractive bark. When grown in groves or groups, they make a striking statement. Some birch, such as yellow (B. alleghaniensis) and white birch (B. populifolia), are large trees used for shade, while smaller birch species, such as river birch (B. nigra) and weeping birch (B. pendula), are often grown as clumps and make excellent garden plants. The leaves on many species turn a brilliant golden in fall. The colorful and textured bark looks stunning especially after the leaves drop.
When, Where and How to Plant
Birch trees are hardy throughout New England. Purchase trees from a local nursery. Plant from spring through early fall in well-drained soil, slightly acidic soils. Birch grows best in cool sites and full sun. Space trees 30 to 40 feet apart. Space weeping and shorter forms closer together.
Keep young trees well watered. In lawn settings create a mulch ring around the drip line of the tree and mulch to protect the roots and trunk from mower damage. Fertilize young trees in spring with a tree fertilizer. Older trees generally don’t need fertilization.
Regional Advice and Care
Prune in summer to remove crossing or competing branches. Don’t prune from late winter to spring because the sap will flow creating the opportunity for diseases to attack.
Some birch trees the will be attacked by insects such as the bronze birch borer. Plant resistant species if borers are a problem. The white birch, in particular, can suffer branch breaking during ice and sun storms.
Companion Planting and Design
Plant large birch trees as specimens in the yard of along a forest edge. Plant weeping forms and smaller trees in the garden as accent plants, or in a mixed tree and shrub border. Locate the attractive barked birched, such as white, paper and river birch, where you can enjoy the view of the tree in winter from the house.
River birch are widely grown landscape trees because of their easy to grow nature, bronze borer insect resistance, beautiful golden fall foliage color and cinnamon colored peeling bark. ‘Heritage’ is a large river birch that looks great in a yard. ‘Summer Cascade’ and ‘Fox Valley’ river birch only grow 15 feet tall. White birch varieties include some with colorful leaves. ‘Purple Splendor’ has purple leaves that contrast nicely with the white bark. ‘Youngsii’ is a weeping form that only grows only 15 feet tall and wide with nice golden fall foliage color. ‘Whitespire’ has pure white bark that doesn’t peel, nice fall foliage color and resists the bronze borer. ‘Snowy’ is a borer resistant variety of paper birch.
Excerpted from my book, New England Getting Started Garden Guide.