When it comes to trees, a decision in haste can lead to a lifetime of regret. Many trees grow more beautiful generation after generation. Others have the potential to create decades of trouble, dropping messy fruit or bothersome sticks. So take your time and select the tree that offers the best combination of qualities you will enjoy.
Begin your selection process by asking: Why do I want a tree? For shade? Privacy? Something to look pretty? Or to block the view of the neighbor's less-than-lovely backyard?
A tree's growth rate also may have a bearing on your choice. The slower growers are hardwoods and tend to live longer. If it's important to establish shade or have flowers relatively quickly, choose a fast-growing tree. Typically, they're smaller, have soft wood, and don't live as long. Scale trees to their surroundings. Use small- or medium-size varieties for smaller houses and yards. On any site, put smaller trees near the house and taller ones farther out in the yard or near its edge.
Trees and shrubs are either deciduous or evergreen. Deciduous trees lose their leaves in the fall and are bare all winter, though the leaves often give a final show of beautiful colors before they drop. Evergreen trees and shrubs retain their foliage year-round. Some, such as southern magnolia, feature broad leaves. Others, such as pines, have needled foliage.
Every kind of cultivated tree has assets that suit it for some landscape use. Each also has certain requirements critical to its survival in the yard. Some are more cold-hardy than others, so check their Zone rating for hardiness. Many do best in rich, moist, woodsy soil that's on the acid side. Others prefer more alkaline soil that tends to be dry because it's not as rich in moisture-holding organic matter. Some trees, like swamp red maples and bald cypress, can handle truly wet soil.
Trees also have their liabilities. Some have thorns that make them unsuitable for homes with children. Others are weedy. Some are messy -- sycamores and relatives of the London plane tree drip fuzzy balls, bark, and twigs all over the place. The spiked balls from sweet gum trees and the runaway roots of willows present challenges as well. However, if you choose the right place for some of these less-desirable varieties, you often can overlook their faults and enjoy their virtues instead.
A small tree is not always a young tree. If it's small from lack of vigor, the condition of its bark will give it away. A weak one will have thicker bark that's textured with ridges, furrows, or flakes, rather than the smooth, tender bark of youth.
Certain trees are more tolerant of typical urban conditions, such as atmospheric pollutants from industry and cars, compacted soil, poor drainage, night lighting, and salt spray from snow plows. Typically, city trees have much shorter lifespans than their suburban or country counterparts. Those that do best are Norway maple, oak, Washington hawthorn, ginkgo, honey locust, sweet gum, crabapple, linden, and zelkova.