How to Choose a Tree for Your Front Yard
How to Choose a Tree
Choosing a tree for the landscape isn't just a question of driving to the local nursery and garden center and picking the first tree you see. Trees can live for decades, sometimes more, and many add value as well as beauty to the home landscape. Choose the right tree, and your home may be graced with shade, fruit, flowers, nuts, beautiful foliage or more, depending on the tree. Choose the wrong tree and you've wasted your time and money. "Right tree, right place" is an old adage but a good one. Learn how to choose the right tree for the right place, and enjoy beautiful trees in your landscape.
Define the Purpose Your Tree Will Serve
The first step to choosing trees for your landscape is to define the purpose that the tree will serve. At first this may sound silly - what purpose does a tree serve, except to grow? Yet trees each perform different functions in the environment. Urban trees, for example, add aesthetic beauty but also help cool down hot city streets. Fast-growing trees can be used as screening for unsightly areas such as air conditioning units, propane tanks and more.
- What do I want this tree to do?
- Do I want a tree that provides fruit or nuts for human consumption or to attract wildlife?
- To screen something ugly near my house such as a shed, garage, air conditioning unit or garbage can area?
- Do I want an elegant shade tree to help cool my house, or a specimen tree as a focal point n the garden?
- How about flowers - do you want a flowering tree, or beautiful fall foliage?
Think about your answers carefully. This will narrow down your choices of trees for the landscape.
Evaluate the Site Conditions for Your Tree
Next, take a careful look at the area where you want to plant your tree. Trees evolved over thousands of years adapted to specific climates and soil types. A tree adapted to the tropics won't fare well in a cold, northern garden, but the same holds true of a tree adapted to a snowy, cold mountain top. You can't plant it in an equatorial garden and except it to thrive.
Assess the following conditions around where you want to plant your tree:
- Light - by far the most critical factor is the light your tree receives. Some trees prefer full sunlight, defined as six or more hours of direct sunshine per day. Other trees are forest under story trees, preferring to grow in the shadows of larger trees. There are trees for most light conditions, but it is important to match the tree with the light conditions you have. It's almost impossible to change light conditions in the garden. Starting out with a tree that's well-adapted to your light conditions boosts your chances of success.
- Soil - have your soil tested at a laboratory through the Cooperative Extension Office. There's a nominal fee for a complete soil test, but it's money well spent, because knowing the pH and nutrient capabilities as well as the type of soil you have also helps guide your tree selection.
- Space - another important consideration for tree selection is both vertical and horizontal space. How much space do you have? Are there any power lines or overhead areas that will compromise safety if the tree grows too tall? There are great trees for nearly every area, including areas with limited overhead space, but you have to know and acknowledge what you are dealing with and choose the right tree accordingly. Don't just look up; look around. Tree limbs grow out, too. The Arbor Day Society has a great illustration, which is linked below in the list of links, showing you spacing considerations for planting trees near homes and other structures.
Consider Your Time Commitment to Gardening
Many people think of trees like big, green rocks; they're just part of the landscape. But trees need tending, too. Some need routine maintenance such as annual pruning. All newly planted trees need watering during the first 1-3 years, especially during times of drought. Tree must be checked and treated for pests, and fruit trees need routine care even if grown organically. Trees also benefit from fertilizer according to the proper schedule for the specific tree.
How much time do you want to spend gardening? Do you want a plant it and forget it kind of tree, or do you enjoy spending time tending to your landscape trees?
Don't forget the "messy factor". Does the tree drop leaves, bark, seeds, nuts or fruit that you'll have to clean up? Some trees drop berries that can cause quite a mess - or attract birds that will eat the berries and cause quite a mess! If you have a spot next to your driveway, garage or carport, that is probably NOT the best tree for the location. The same goes for trees dropping large, gumball-shaped seed pods such as the sweet gum; they're nicknamed 'ankle rollers' for a reason. Planting such trees near a walkway is a recipe for disaster. So think carefully about where that tree is going, and not just about how pretty it will look in one season. Think about raking leaves, dealing with messy bark, and wildlife grazing on fruit. All of these have to be added to your list of considerations.
Narrow Down Your List
The next step to selecting the perfect tree or specimen tree for your landscape or yard is to make a list of the selection criteria. Your list may look something like this:
Tree for Suburban Front Yard
- Full sunlight okay
- Can be tall (plenty of room, no overhead wires)
- Soil is Ph 6.5 and clay loam (tends to clay)
- Gardening zone 6
- Wanted for shade, fall foliage
- No big nuts, seed pods, fruits, etc
- Room for roots
That will narrow your choices down to the big shade trees - the oaks, maples and the like.
Here's another sample selection criteria:
- Full sunlight
- Need something small - going to plant it near the front garden, don't want to block my bay window
- Sandy soil
- Zone 7
- Would love something with flowers
In each example, the homeowners have narrowed down their choices considerable. Now they know what they have to work with and can find the right tree for the right place.
List of Selection Critera
There are other considerations for picking the right tree for the right place. Disease resistance is an important factor. You may have heard of Dutch Elm Disease, a disease which decimated the beautiful elm trees in the Midwest, or the blight that struck down the mighty American chestnut tree. Choosing trees resistant to diseases prevalent in your local community means your tree has a better chance of survival.
What are the selection criteria for trees? Here is a list you can use to jot down your needs:
- Final height at maturity (how tall does it get?)
- How wide does it get? (called "crown width" in gardening catalogs and plant tags)
- Shape - is it tall and narrow, open and stately, weeping?
- Winter hardiness (know your gardening zone!)
- Soil needs
- Light needs
- Urban stresses - if you live in an urban environment, look for trees that can handle pollution, drought, and other stresses
- Serious diseases or insect pests
- Hazards and nuisances - big seed pods that can twist an ankle, acorns and nuts banging onto your car, fruit that discolors the driveway and attract nuisance wildlife; think about all of this and jot down what you want and don't want.
- Flower color - if flowers are important to you, what color would you like?
- Edible fruit or nuts?
- Foliage - colorful foliage year round, or just in fall?
- Other aspects such as bark texture
Help for Homeowners Choosing Trees
If all this seems confusing or complicated, it's actually simpler than it looks. Once you know what you want and don't want, it's time to head to the local nursery. The benefit of working with a local, privately owned nursery and garden center is that they've usually chosen trees that will grow well in your gardening zone and are probably resistant to local diseases and pests (although not always.) They know the local climate and considerations and tend to stock what grows well. After all, they want you to be happy with your purchase and come back for more!
Another resource for you is your local Cooperative Extension Office. Such offices are run by land-grant universities in each state and provide free tip sheets, care sheets and information to the community. You can check your state to see if they have tree selection guides and care sheets online. Most do, and they are free to access and download.
Talk to the professionals at your local garden center or Cooperative Extension Office, do your research, and take your time shopping for a tree. Trees are an investment in the future. With some trees living far beyond the years of their human caretakers, the tree you plant today will be enjoyed for generations to come. You can take your time choosing the right tree. It will wait for you.
- Selecting Trees for Your Yard
Determining which trees are right for your landscape.