How to Select the Best Tree

Trees can provide shade, energy efficiency, and visual appeal- even fruit! They are good for the environment, increase the value of your home and are good for just sitting under on a lazy summer day. While the initial investment of planting a tree is certainly greater than the cost of a flat of annuals, the benefits you'll reap are much greater as well. And planting a tree is a link to the future. In a way, planting a tree is like giving a gift to the next generation.

Before you reach for a shovel, there are some important considerations to make. When you think about how a tree will look in your yard, it is likely that you are focusing on the special characteristics of the tree: fabulous fall foliage, beautiful blossoms, shade, winter interest, etc. However, there are other important considerations to take into account before choosing a tree. By keeping these important points in mind, you can be assured many years of pleasure from your tree.

Planting With a Purpose

One of the first considerations to take into account when selecting a tree is its function or purpose. If you have no or few trees, focus on trees which provide shade and trees which provide privacy first.

Shade trees should be positioned so that they block undesirable sun. If you want to plant a shade tree near your deck, for example, plant the tree so that it will block the western sun. You can enjoy dining al fresco in the cooler shade all summer long with a properly planted shade tree.

For privacy, evergreens make excellent screens. Instead of planting a long row of pines or cypress for screening, consider tree groupings. Groups of evergreens along with flowering trees or shrubs, create a more interesting setting. Planting needle evergreens on the northwest side of your home will provide a block for winter winds.

Once shade and privacy trees are in place, you can focus on flowering trees. Don't be afraid to group several of the same type of trees together in a grove. This is often more interesting than single trees scattered here and there. While it is lovely to have a long succession of bloom in our garden, several trees blooming at one time makes a greater impact.

Finally, accent trees, those with unusual shapes, should be carefully positioned. They often look best as the focal point in a landscaped bed. A single Japanese Maple looks lost planted in the middle of the yard, yet, when it is planted with shrubs that accentuate its color and form, it becomes the queen of the garden. Large, majestic trees, such as the London Planetree (a hybrid of the sycamore), are exceptions that look beautiful when planted alone.

Room to Grow

A second consideration when choosing a tree is its size. It is helpful to look at established trees in your neighborhood to accurately visualize how large a particular tree will grow. Shade trees should be planted 20 feet away from the house and from other trees, while flowering trees can be planted 10 feet away from the house or each other. Pine trees should be planted 15 feet apart. Planting trees too close to a structure or to each other can cause problems for both trees and structures.

When trees are planted too close together, they cannot develop a healthy root structure - there is simply not enough space for the roots to grow. Many mature white pines died during the serious drought last summer because they were planted too close to each other. When trees are planted too close to a building or other structure, the roots may not have enough room to develop without interfering with the structure's foundation. Tree limbs growing too close or over the building also pose risks.

Tree Geometry

The third consideration should be the shape of the tree. There are actually twelve basic tree shapes. The most common are: round, vase, upright oval, weeping, broad triangle, and horizontal oval. For example, a flowering pear tree would be classified as an upright oval. Most of the maples are round or horizontal oval. A pin Oak is a broad triangle. As with shrubs, trees that have similar shapes compliment each other. Trees with unusual shapes, such as weeping cherries or Japanese Maples, should be used sparingly, as accents.

Location, Location, Location

A final consideration is that you understand the best growing conditions for the trees you are purchasing. Planting the right tree in the right place is the easiest way to ensure that you will benefit from all of the outstanding features the tree has to offer. It is critical that you know the light, soil, and wind conditions of the planting site.

A pear, for example, needs full sun in order to produce masses of blossoms in the early spring, while a dogwood will bloom better and be less likely to have insect problems if it is planted in a partly shady location. Certain broad-leaved trees, such as hollies and magnolias, will get windburn and may die if planted in a windy area. Most trees cannot tolerate poorly drained soil. If you have drainage problems you must correct it or plant a tree that will survive in a wet area, such as Heritage River Birch.

Caring for your Tree

Now that you have chosen a tree, you are ready for planting. Although you will receive detailed planting instructions from the nursery, the following are few important details, which often go overlooked.

  • It is preferable, when possible, to purchase a tree which has been grown locally. Locally grown trees offer the benefit of being accustomed to local soil and climate.
  • If the tree is in a root ball, you must know whether the burlap and rope used to tie up the roots are biodegradable. If they are not, they must be removed before planting.
  • One of the major reasons that newly planted trees die is that they are planted too deeply. It is critical to plant your tree so that one-eighth of the root ball is above the ground.
  • The care of your trees goes beyond the initial planting and waterings. While most trees are long-lived, they are not indestructible. Care for your trees by watering slowly and deeply during dry periods.
  • Fertilizing annually is all that is necessary. Use a slow release, granular type fertilizer after the leaves drop from the trees in the fall.
  • Tree stakes should be removed after one year. When they are left on longer, the roots do not develop properly.
  • Keep the tree mulched to prohibit grass from growing around the trunk. This will keep the dreaded weed whackers from slashing into the bark, leaving an easy entry for insects and disease.

With proper planning, selection, positioning and care, your tree will provide a lifetime of enjoyment and benefit.

Resource Center