Trees are rich in beauty and benefits. They are important to the ecological health of our communities, and many of us plant trees to contribute to the well-being of our planet. Planting a tree may also celebrate the birth of a child or mark the loss of a loved one. But probably the most common reason we plant trees is that we just enjoy having them in our backyards.
If you’re considering planting a tree, you’ll find hundreds of tree species available through local nurseries and nursery catalogs. The challenge is to make a good choice for your region and yard. Here are five steps to help you select the best trees for where you live.
1. Find a list of the best trees for your area. Every tree grows better in certain regions, depending on altitude, winter hardiness, average temperatures in winter and summer, and availability of water. Most states have one or more professional landscape associations that keep lists of the best trees for specific states based on growing needs and availability. Your local extension service may also have a list for your county. Or, do an online search for “recommended trees (your state).” In any case, one or more of these lists will get you started.
2. Cross large trees off your list. Large shade trees such as oaks, hickories and most maples are wonderful additions to any yard after they mature — but that’s the catch. If you plant any species that has a mature size of more than 40 feet, you’re likely to move to a new home before that tree makes any impact on the appearance of your landscape. Even if you buy a large specimen, you will likely have to wait 30 to 50 years before it’s full-size.
It’s better to look for a small tree (mature size of less than 30 feet) or a medium-sized tree (mature size of 30 to 40 feet) for your home landscape. Your list is now shorter.
3. Identify the primary tree characteristics you favor: blossoms, fall color, evergreen, interesting shape, bark texture, or trees known for attracting birds and other wildlife. When looking for a new tree, most of us won’t accept just any tree standing in the garden center. We want the new tree to improve our yard, and we have some preferences. If you focus specific tree characteristics, your list will get much shorter.
Ornamental trees that have blossoms are popular. Most bloom sometime in spring, but there are a number of species that bloom in the summer and early fall when few other trees bloom. Blossoms come in many colors, including white, pink, red, yellow, purple and combinations. Some flowering trees, such as crab apples and dogwoods, will attract birds.
Evergreens can be used to form a barrier between a yard and the street or a neighbor’s yard. Some trees are preferred for their unusual shape, such as the corkscrew willow or the weeping form of several species. Some trees have unique, attractive bark, such as the brightness of white birch or the exfoliating bark of river birch.
After ruling out some tree species based on their characteristics, you now have an even shorter list of trees remaining — all ones that you are interested in planting.
4. Check local availability. Now take your list to garden centers in your area or an established landscaping company to determine which trees on your list are actually available.
It’s frustrating to read about a lovely new variety of tree that’s just what you want — small, fast-growing, beautiful fall colors and tolerant of many different kinds of conditions (Trident maple, for example) — only to find the garden center doesn’t stock that particular tree. And it may be hard for the center to get it because it’s too new. Many recently bred varieties of attractive species take a decade to reach the broad marketplace. Sometimes a local landscaper can find a variety that may not yet be in retail distribution. You can buy almost any tree on the Internet or from a catalog, but those generally come 3 to 4 feet tall and take too long to become a prominent component of your landscape.
5. If you still have more than one species on your list, choose based on growth rate and size. The label on a tree in a garden center will usually tell you what kind of light is appropriate (sun or shade) and how high and wide the tree will get, but seldom will it tell you how fast the tree will grow. Fast-growing trees are those that grow 11⁄2 feet or more per year. A medium grower adds 1 foot per year, and slow-growing trees all add less than 1 foot each year.
So, if you buy a 10-foot maple that is expected to reach 70 feet and it’s a slow grower, it will take 60 years for that tree to reach maturity. That’s a long time to wait. If you have a choice between two trees you like equally well, pick the one that grows fastest. (Resources such as those listed below will help you find growth rates.)
Finally, I suggest you buy the biggest specimen you can afford, even if it seems expensive. Many trees available in garden and home centers are about 8 to 10 feet tall. They cost between $50 and $150 in most cases. Good garden centers also have some trees standing more than 20 feet tall and priced from $200 to $600, depending on the species. A tree of this size tends to have a root ball so large the average homeowner couldn’t manage planting it, so you may need to have it delivered and planted for a fee of $200 to $400. On the surface, this may seem like too much money for just one tree. But on second look, it’s a good investment — mature shade trees in good condition can add a 7 to 19 percent increase in value to your home. That little $150 tree won’t add much value for 10 years. A tree that’s 20 to 30 feet tall adds immediate aesthetic appeal to your landscape and will pay back its cost in three to five years in the form of increased property value.
Best Trees for Everyone
A serious ecological issue in urban areas is the lack of diversity among the tree population. In the 1970s, the favorite street and landscape tree in the United States was the elm — and we planted a bunch of them. Then Dutch elm disease appeared and virtually all of those millions of beautiful, tall elms died. So, what did we do? We looked around and thought the ash tree was close to the elm in stature and appearance, so we planted lots of ash trees. Then the emerald ash borer appeared in 2002, and that pest has killed tens of millions of ash trees in Michigan alone.
When you add a tree to the ecosystem, try to plant a species that is not one of the five most popular in your area. The more diversity added to a local ecosystem, the less likely it will be to suffer a traumatic loss of trees because of insects or disease.
Our planet is in desperate need of more trees to replace the billions lost to development. Planting a tree every year will add beauty to your yard, increase the value of your home and help make our Earth a better place.
Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs
Descriptions of more than 500 species, including great photos.
Arbor Day Tree Guide
Browse an extensive tree guide and a helpful glossary of tree terms.
Native Plant Database
Search for native trees for your state by common or scientific name, light or moisture requirements, bloom characteristics and more.
Jeff Ball has been teaching and writing about gardening for 28 years. He also appeared monthly as the gardening expert on NBC’s Today show for eight years.