Selecting a Tree

So, it is time to plant a new tree in the yard. Whether you are replacing a tree lost to weather, age or disease, or you are adding a lovely, valuable feature to your home landscape and benefiting our community as well. Because most homeowners do not regularly choose and plant trees as a routine part of yard maintenance, they are often less familiar with tree issues, terminology, and selection. So, the following discussion is an overview of these issues to help you select trees for your property.

For purposes of design and discussion it is customary, when considering trees in landscapes, to distinguish between shade trees and ornamental trees. The term “shade tree” is used by municipal codes to mean very large trees, usually deciduous, planted in public spaces, college and corporate campuses, parks and especially along roadsides. In general usage the term means any tree species that grows to 60 feet or more at maturity. These oaks, maples, walnuts, lindens, zelkovas and others grow to stately proportions, dignifying and protecting neighborhoods and communities. Some of us are lucky to have established shade trees on our properties.

Both the large shade trees that are already in the yard and the smaller ornamental trees that you add to the landscape provide shade in varying degrees. But more importantly, they protect your entire residential ecosystem by controlling stormwater runoff, reducing heat and air pollution, offering habitat for many of the insects and other wildlife that are essential to a healthy residential landscape. Evergreens and deciduous trees are both valuable to establishing the sense of place and character of your garden yard and add to its beauty.

Ornamental trees

While large shade trees are a huge asset to a property, only residents who have very large properties have much opportunity to chose trees of this scale. When it comes to buying trees for their yards, homeowners typically buy small to medium-size ornamental ones, such as dogwood, stewartia, crapemyrtle, witchhazel, redbud and others. For many folks, buying even a small tree is somewhat daunting. Trees cost more than most perennials. They need more careful siting because they are not easy to transplant. They require some special expertise to plant properly. And there are so many wonderful ornamental trees to choose from it is hard to make a commitment.

Of course you want beauty. However, trees can multitask! They can also be functional while they are being beautiful. A single tree can stand beautifully alone as a specimen, accent, or anchor for a yard. Or, planted in various kinds of groupings, lovely trees can show off in groups in allees, groves, and buffers. At the same time, alone or grouped, they can simultaneously reduce noise, feed and shelter wildlife, preserve stream banks, and control flooding and soil erosion. Then, of course, there are those that, while being beautiful, can do all this and also bear edible fruits and nuts for us.

So the challenge is to find a tree that simultaneously is beautiful to you and suits your site and is an asset to your home ecosystem. Unless you have already seen and fallen in love with a certain tree species, it is a good idea to develop some criteria before you start hunting for the ideal tree for your garden. This will save you time and keep you focused on specifics.

Checklist for Choosing a Garden Tree

Here are some of the major issues to consider when selecting a tree for your yard. Check all those that apply, then consider which issues are a top priority for you. Use this list when you research possible choices. Take it with you to the nursery or garden center.

♦ Do I have mature height and width limitations for this tree?
♦ Will this tree increase plant diversity in my landscape?
♦ What do I want this tree to do for my home landscape?

  • Screen view, light, noise
  • Feature foliage color or variegation
  • Be a focal point, specimen or anchor
  • Provide flowers in spring; in summer
  • Provide foliage color in fall
  • Provide interesting bark
  • Block summer sun and/or admit winter sun
  • Hold the soil
  • Shelter/feed wildlife
  • Yield edible fruit (paw-paw. Persimmon, apple, etc.)
  • Provide material for indoor home decor

♦ Does it matter if it is native? or non-native?

♦ Do I want deciduous ? (drops leaves) or evergreen ? (needled or broad-leafed).

♦ Do I want a certain shape? (pyramidal, vase, weeping, narrow).

♦ Does it need wet soil? Acid soil?

♦ Does it need a male or female nearby to produce fruit?

♦ Will it grow in a container?

♦ Are their any special situations in my yard that the tree must accommodate? (slope, overhead wires, other)

At the nursery or garden center

Trees require commitment. Planting them properly is critical to their futures, so you need to know how to do that. Young trees grow twice as fast when chosen and planted carefully and they will live twice as long as trees planted carelessly. They require some attention in the first year or two, mostly watering, so you do not want to make any mistakes if you can help it. If you are looking for large, older trees, they are available from landscaping firms at a premium price and, initially, they will not grow as fast as those planted at a younger age.

Young ornamental (and fruit) trees are available in stores and catalogs in three types of packaging—bare root, balled and burlapped (B&B), and containerized. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

Bare root trees are just that. They are simply a branched trunk ranging from 4 to 6 feet in height, with roots exposed at the other end. They are not always readily available at nurseries and garden centers, but mailorder nurseries offer them in a wide variety of species. They are very lightweight and easy to handle. They are also less expensive than young trees that are B&B or in containers. Bare root trees arrive with their roots wrapped in material to keep them moist and in a plastic bag. They should be stored in a cool place until planting time. Plant them fairly promptly in late winter or early spring while they are still dormant. To avoid planting too deeply, be sure the root flare at the base of the stem shows at, or slightly above, ground level after you put the soil in the hole over the roots. Bare root trees need staking for the first year to assure that they are stable.

Balled and burlapped (B&B) trees are substantial. At retail stores their trunks are typically 6 to 8 feet tall. Their roots are embedded in a ball of soil that is wrapped in burlap and tied with string or surrounded by a wire cage. They are commonly sold at nurseries, and also are available at some garden centers. B&B trees are fairly expensive because there are usually delivery costs included due to their weight. The advantages of B&B trees are that they are usually a bit bigger; you can plant them all year round if the soil is not frozen, and they generally do not need staking. However, planting them is  somewhat more complicated because the burlap or wire must be at least partially removed and sometimes the root flare is covered by the soil on the rootball which must be removed to establish correct planting depth.

Containerized plants are convenient. The young trees are planted in potting medium in a nursery container. Available from about 6 to 8 feet tall, they are moderately priced and are relatively easy to bring home from the nursery or garden center yourself. A great number of tree varieties are available in containers in nurseries and garden centers and they can be planted any time all year as long as the soil can be worked. Planting containerized trees is relatively straightforward, but it is important to probe the potting medium before planting to be sure that the roots have not wrapped around themselves while inside the pot and to check to see if the root flare at the base of the trunk is visible. Often soil is piled on a containerized tree when it is in its pot, literally burying the stem for several inches. Remove all extra soil so that the root flare is visible at, or a bit above, ground level when you set the tree in its hole. Also, it is a good idea to mix loose potting medium into the soil from the hole before filling in around the tree roots to provide a transition to encourage the roots to venture outward into real soil.

The time to select and plant a new tree is always last year. This is especially true when one of your existing trees is in obvious decline. Do not wait until it dies to replace it. Put its replacement in nearby now. It will be fully established and growing vigorously when you lose your old one. It is also true when you are contemplating a new landscape design. Get your trees in first and soonest and they will grow and thrive while you take your time developing the area around them.

By Liz Ball and Rick Ray