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One morning, my tree fell over during a huge wind storm after a solid week of rain. There was no property damage, but my ego was shattered.

At the time, my daily commute to Calgary and back from Airdrie felt like a breath of fresh air – on the drive home. As I drove into town all alone every morning, I could see grey smog heavy on the horizon. As a young, impatient, recent-graduate gardener, I decided the solution was trees, so I had planted the biggest I could afford. This was my first mistake.

Mature, field-grown trees lose up to 90 per cent of their roots when they are trimmed and containerized. Large trees with small roots are tied up tight in rows so they’ll stay upright until sold. When planted in a yard, the large canopy of leaves catches wind like a flag and the downsized roots can’t bear the weight. Eventually, the tree tips over.

Want to know a secret? Small trees grow faster than big trees and have a higher survival rate. While still small, there is a better proportion of root growth to top growth. Trees as small as a seedling reach higher than a two-storey house in less time than it takes to graduate a toddler from high school. When I see nine-centimetre pots of shrubs and trees I celebrate, but this is rare, since small seedling trees usually go straight to nurseries to “size up.”

Here’s another secret: spending big on soil is smart. Yes, you can dig a deep hole in crummy soil, but sticky clay subsoil, so common in most of our region, holds too much water. Roots have trouble penetrating clay and water can’t escape, so tree roots drown and rot.

If you dream of trees with spring blooms, plant a Toba hawthorn. If summer colour attracts you, opt for a Thunderchild crabapple. For fall or winter hues, consider a mountain ash or an Amur cherry. Regardless of your choice, if you want your tree to establish quickly, then plant a small tree in good soil.

I replaced my fallen tree with birch seeds I collected from the November snow along a city trail, where they had fallen from the trees above. They tower over my old house now and beautify the neighbourhood.