The right way to get a trunk of a different color

Citrus growers paint the trunks of young fruit trees to absorb heat and prevent freeze damage. And we've all seen dead trees and stumps carved in ingenious ways.

But not too many of us think of painting trees - dead or alive - as a decorative or artistic statement in the garden.

If you're game, here are some pointers from the experts:

Use natural colors that catch the eye without making you cringe. Ted Weiant painted his fig trees a shade of green that was an exact match for its leaves. "It's really quite beautiful," says the Hollywood, Calif., landscape designer, who has also used yellow and blue.

Avoid dark colors if the tree is alive. They absorb heat that could damage the tree.

Use water-based latex only. "Oil paint is bad, bad, bad. It stops any kind of breathing going on for the tree," says Mindy Maslin, tree expert at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

Trees with smooth bark and interesting trunks are the best subjects. "I would not paint every tree in the world," Weiant says, "but if it has leaves that a contrasting color would make pop and come alive, that's probably a good candidate."

And be smart. A dead tree near a garage or day care? "Not a good idea," Maslin says, "but if it's a vast field somewhere, sure, have fun."

Your painted tree could spark new design ideas, such as lighting the tree from below. "Gives it a sculptural look," says Weiant, who put a blue bench, a blue fountain, blue and green beach glass, and blue Agapanthus or African lily around his blue-trunked camellias.

Still, not everyone's on board.

Arborist Ken LeRoy of Blue Bell once thought of applying bronze paint to the curlicue stems of his dead Corylus avellana 'Contorta' or Harry Lauder's walking stick. He has yet to act on it.

"I prefer to watch trees grow," he says, "and I prefer to remove them when they die."

Guess he likes his trees the way nature - and this Chinese proverb - intended:

Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come.

- Virginia A. Smith