Choosing the Right Trees for Your Yard
Eleven years ago when I stood on the corner and looked at our new home from 100 yards away, the old/new house looked orphaned. The two ancient oaks, the English walnut, two of the silver maples and most of the shrubs had disappeared in the 60 years of neglect that had occurred since I first saw it as a child. At that time, the old place had belonged to my grandmother. So, I wanted trees both for sentimental reasons and to spruce up the old farmstead. This is an account of what I wish I had known about trees and landscaping before I started planting.
Two confessions: I’m an amateur gardener, neither a landscaper nor an arborist. My experience was initially guided by emotional attachments and a budget constrained by the expensive renovations necessary for the house itself. Thus, I made mistakes by not doing enough homework and preparation. Perhaps this article can help you avoid wasted time and energy if you are landscaping a bare parcel of land or re-working an existing yard. Let’s approach the job by asking what you need from trees; then we’ll address what the trees need from you.
What can trees do for you?
Most of us experience our trees as complementing our yards and homes; or not. Because of their size, trees define our property by focusing attention on the house and often by hiding less appealing aspects of the scene. By walking around your site, both close-up and from a distance, you can decide what to show off and what to hide. Personal preferences for privacy or drama will make a difference about where to plant in relation to entrances, windows, and the street. For example, a lengthy driveway bordered by maples casts an enchanted shadow in summer and beckons the visitor through bare branches in winter.
You may need shade on your southern exposure, or a sunny spot for vegetables or flowers. This is the time to consider what kind of gardening you want to do near these trees. If you are a vegetable or flower gardener as I am, you will want beds that need at least 6 hours of sun both for vegetables and for many blossoming plants; other ornamentals manage with partial shade or full shade. Evergreens provide shade in all seasons and can have either needles (e.g., pine, spruce) or leaves (e.g., magnolia, holly). Ideally, you would watch the movement of the sun for twelve months. More likely, you can note the four points of the compass around your property in order to surmise where the sunniest and shadiest spots will be year-round. Remember: trees may grow slowly, but they do get much larger than the specimens you will install. An arborist has the equipment to bring in huge trees for instant effect, but at considerable cost. Plan for both the next couple of years and for the length of time you expect to live there. A common mistake in a homegrown landscape is to plant too close to permanent structures which often means future pruning or removal as your trees grow. In ten years even a beautiful tree can pose the danger of falling on the house.
What do trees need from you?
Before you begin choosing trees, do a soil test, taking samples from representative parts of the lot. Results from Virginia Tech will tell you what kind of soil you have and what amendments may be necessary for success with the trees you want. As you later study and shop for various specimens, you will learn which ones tolerate all soils and which are more particular. The test results provide your baseline. Because of their size and roots, amending the soil needs to be done before planting trees. Note the slope and drainage in your land. While most trees do best in well-drained soil, some like wet feet (e.g., willows, cypress) while others prefer dry conditions (e.g., chinquapin, bear oak).
The above considerations are the hard part of planning because they involve some unknowns and contingencies we can’t always control. Learn about what you can control by the placement of trees. Next comes the fun of imagining how the plants we see in nurseries and catalogs will decorate your own place.
What do you want your trees to look like?
Height and the spread of your tree’s crown are fundamental descriptions of a mature tree worth thinking carefully about. We wanted a relatively quick fix to the barren appearance around our new home. A friend offered me tulip poplar saplings three and four feet tall from their woods. I knew they would grow fast, so I planted them some distance away. Ten years later, at 25 feet tall, they define a perennial bed across the driveway from the house. At about the same time I bought some smaller oak switches from the Virginia Forestry Service that grow much more slowly. Some of them are just now reaching the height of those original poplars while others have reached 10-12 feet. As a general rule, trees transplanted from the wild will have less success than those from a nursery.
Give some thought to the size and shape you want to see in the long term. A tall, conical shape like a pin oak can add a sense of height to a single story home. By contrast, generously spreading trees such as white oak or maple can eventually nestle the largest house in its arms. This is the time also to decide between evergreen and deciduous. Again, height and spread will vary with your choices.
Generations of experimentation have given us more alternatives even within the same species. Japanese maples mature in height from three to 20 feet while the hedge maple can soar to 75 feet. One variety will turn from green to brown in fall while a cultivar sports a brilliant yellow or red in October. A few minutes research now saves trouble and expense later. Check out Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs in the references below for handy charts on size, shapes and other features.
Because of their bulk, trees can dominate a landscape with a variety of colors and textures that change with the season. Summer leaves may be different shades of green ( such as pale willow or dark oak leaves) , or turn spectacularly in the fall. The wine color of native dogwood leaves will linger into winter. Bark which becomes more evident in winter can be shaggy or smooth ( two kinds of hickory), peeling (birches), mottled (sycamore), light (paper birch) or dark (dogwood).
Blossom color appeals to everyone. The Kwanzan cherry’s large pink blooms catch the eye in April before green leaves appear; finally, the leaves spread their yellow-red carpet on the lawn in November. Of course the pristine white magnolia flowers of summer delight southerners. Michael Dirr’s book describes the colors and their seasons.
A reminder: the evolutionary purpose of those flowers is usually the production of fruit and/or nuts. So it pays to inquire about the product, if any, your tree will leave behind. Some crabapples will blanket the ground with sour, fermenting fruit. Female gingkos with their brilliant yellow leaves drop a smelly mess, though for this reason, most nurseries sell only the males Walnut and gum trees with indistinct flowers deposit an abundance of round nut casings that make walking difficult. The Osage orange tree drops softball-size green fruit.
Spending time with catalog pictures, the information from the websites of botanical gardens and extension services can ignite and guide your imagination. Homework pays off before expending money and energy. A wise choice now gets better over time.
The Business of Choosing
The proverbial guide for gardeners holds true especially for trees because they are a long term investment: “The right tree for the right place.” Don’t be afraid to listen to your heart, but also pay attention to a few practicalities in your head. Three constants are always worth considering: size, leaves, and habit. Smaller lots in cities and suburbs have encouraged nurseries to develop a range of sizes. Starting with those three constants will help narrow down your choices and improve the chance you’ll still love your decision in the years to come.
People who plant trees are looking to the future. We can envision not only a lovely landscape, but one that feeds birds, butterflies and squirrels (and even acorns for the rapacious deer in Piedmont Virginia). We may want to leave something beautiful for our children to enjoy. Native plants are popular and often out-perform exotic species. A few trees produce substances that make certain other plants very difficult to grow near them, walnut and hickories being the prime native examples. Check the VCE publication in the Sources list below for compatible plantings, especially with walnuts.
Your soil test will tell you what amendments, if any, are needed for your top choices. Cross check those results with the requirements for light, moisture, pH and soil type for the trees that you imagine in your yard. Non-profit and educational websites such as Virginia Tech and the Missouri Botanical Garden generally offer more factual information about a particular species than we often see on the nursery tag. Some problems are fixable by adding amendments to your soil. Others, such as moist ground near a stream are not. Sunshine only comes from one source. Most of us rely on rain to provide enough water for our trees once we’ve gotten them past the first year; and we depend upon the lay of the land to drain that water where the plant needs it.
Adding a tree or a small grove of trees will increase the appeal of your home to you and your neighbors. And it lasts.
Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs, An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Michael A. Dirr, Timber Press, 1997). Brief descriptions with pictures and recommendations from an acknowledged expert. A series of charts in the back usefully describe height, color, and other characteristics.
“Selecting Landscape Plants: Shade Trees.” Diane Relf and Bonnie Appleton. https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/426/426-610/426-610_pdf.pdf. A helpful chart of characteristics and a valuable description of appropriate trees.
Missouri Botanical Garden. www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/ Reliable and readable scientific resource for many trees and plants.
“Landscaping and Gardening Around Walnuts and Other Juglone Producing Plants,” Pa.StateExt.psu.edu. Valuable for yards with walnuts and hickories especially
Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2012). Includes a section on natives with their characteristics, growing conditions, habitat, etc. as well as helpful references.
For information about specific species, see the following from The Garden Shed:
“Fringetree — Slow to Bloom but Worth the Wait,” by Pat Chadwick, May 2017-Vol 3. No.5; piedmontmastergardeners.org/article/fringetree
“Winterberry Holly,” by Pat Chadwick, December 2015-Vol.1 No.12; piedmontmastergardeners.org/article/winterberry-holly
“Sweetbay Magnolia,” by Pat Chadwick, November 2015-Vol.1 No.11; piedmontmastergardeners.org/article/sweetbay-magnolia
“Eastern Redbud Tree,” by Pat Chadwick, March 2015 – Vol. 1 No. 3; https://piedmontmastergardeners.org/article/eastern-redbud-tree/
“Colorful Native Hardwoods for the Landscape,” by David K. Garth, March 2015 – Vol. 1 No. 3; piedmontmastergardeners.org/article/colorful-native-hardwoods