The right tree in the right space in your yard can add considerably to the attractiveness of your landscape. The wrong tree, however, can be an absolutely nightmare, tangling its branches into the power lines, snaking roots deep into the sewer or water line, or dropping branches through the roof. Before impulsively buying that gorgeous tree you spotted at the nursery or garden center, take a few minutes to consider several factors when choosing a tree for your yard.

Why Do You Want to Plant a Tree?

It seems like a strange question, but why do you want to plant a tree? Are you looking for flowers in the spring, fruit to eat, shade for relaxing and entertaining, or a place for birds to nest? Each of these are valid considerations, but only when you know your own reasons for choosing a tree can you narrow down your choices.

Trees offer different qualities. Think about the following list of characteristics, and check off those that appeal to you the most:

  • Seasonal color: Some trees offer gorgeous fall color. Others bloom in the spring or summer, and add a delightful fragrance, too. Do you have any preference for fall or spring color?
  • Seasonal shade: Deciduous trees offer summertime shade, but lose their leaves in the fall and winter, allowing sunlight to warm your home. Evergreens provide year-round shade. Consider where your tree will be planted; do you want sunshine in the wintertime to warm your home or not?
  • Height: Trees grow to different heights. Some, such as dogwoods, are generally understory trees in the forest, and depending on the type, grow to different heights. A soaring oak tree or tulip tree may be inappropriate close to your home, but a lovely weeping cherry that won’t top 12 feet may be perfect. Know the maximum height for the space where your tree will grow, and choose a species that won’t interfere with anything overhead such as telephone or power lines.
  • Canopy: Trees also grow outward as well as upward. The canopy shape ranges from a rounded shape, a pointed shape, or an umbrella like shape, to name a few. Branches in a tree’s canopy grow outward; a tree planted too close to your home or garage will quickly become a nuisance if the branches scrape against the windows or block your view. Consider how wide a tree’s canopy grows as well as how high it grows before selecting your tree.
  • Roots: Trees also have different root structures, with some developing deep tap roots and others growing roots close to the soil surface. Such trees can uproot sidewalks or disrupt sprinkler lines. Consider the root structure before planting your tree.
  • Habitat Needs: Lastly, trees, like other plants, prefer different environments. Consider your gardening zone and what trees grow well in your area. Northern climates can enjoy conifers of all sorts as well as deciduous trees such as oaks, maples and others, while very southern gardens may find that citrus trees offer wonderful benefits. Know your tree’s climate, water and soil needs before shopping.

Not-So-Wonderful Tree Habits

Although gardeners love their trees, some species have habits that aren’t so wonderful...and can even be downright dangerous or disruptive.

Willows, while graceful and beautiful, are notorious for seeking any water source they can find. These water craving trees have been known to break into sewer lines or water lines with their roots to find enough moisture to support themselves, and they can seriously damage a suburban yard.

Sycamores or London Plane Trees have beautiful leaf canopies and stunning bark, but they shed their bark and drop copious seed pods the size of golf balls during certain times of the year. That’s fine in the forest, but do you want to sweep bark and seeds off your suburban sidewalk every day?

Even an innocuous mulberry tree, with its rich purple berries, can be a nuisance if grown too close to the street. In the town where I grew up, mulberry trees planted around a parking lot turned the lot into a minefield of purple-striped cars when the birds finished eating the ripe fruit and, well, did what birds do over cars...yes, they “painted the town purple” thanks to the plethora of mulberry tree fruit growing nearby. It’s an important consideration if you want to keep the peace with your neighbors - and keep your car clean!

So know your trees before you go shopping. A good guidebook or website can help you identify trees that meet your criteria. The Arbor Day Society has a free tree finding tool on their website that will walk you through these considerations and help you select an appropriate tree for your yard.

Tree Shopping: What to Look for When Buying a Tree

After you’ve made your list of desirable characteristics, it’s time to shop for your new tree. Most trees available for sale at your local nursery and garden center are either container-grown or packaged as “balled and burlapped” trees. Trees with their roots wrapped in burlap are field-grown and dug during their dormancy period before being shipped to their destination.

There are pros and cons to buying container grown versus field-grown trees:

  • Container grown trees tend to be lighter. Most are grown in a lightweight medium that makes them less costly to ship.
  • Container grown trees haven’t had their roots disturbed during transplanting, so they are less prone to transplant shock. Digging up a mature field grown tree can break the smaller feeder roots, leaving the tree more vulnerable to transplant shock and spending additional time repairing roots before growing.
  • Field grown trees are usually larger. You can find larger specimens among field grown trees than container grown trees, so if buying a bigger tree is important to you, consider field grown trees.

Once you take home your new trees from the nursery, read the instructions on planting a tree carefully. Dig the hole according to the species; some need them twice as big as the root ball. Trees in general should be planted to the depth they were grown in, so look at the trunk to estimate the planting depth.

Field grown trees wrapped in burlap and cords should have the cords cut and the burlap slashed or removed before planting them. Many people say to leave the burlap on and let it rot naturally, but the Utah Cooperative Extension recommends removing the cords and burlap entirely. It makes sense, because the tree’s roots have immediate access to the soil, and you don’t have to wait for the burlap to rot away.

For more information on how to plant trees, please see: