How to Select the Best Trees for Your Yard
Because they can live for decades (or centuries in some cases), it's important to choose the right tree for your landscape. Here's how to select the best trees for your zone and site.
When it comes to trees, a decision made in haste can lead to years 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 when selecting a tree to plant and choose one 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? This will help you begin to narrow down the choices. Use these tips for finding just the right tree for you.
Why Plant a Tree?
Asking this question will help you figure out what kind of tree you'd most like to plant. But know that almost any tree you choose will add value to your home, among other benefits. Here’s why you should invest time and money in planting trees:
- A mature tree can have an appraised value of between $1,000 and $10,000, according to the Council of Tree and Landscape Appraisers. It takes years for trees to reach mature size, so plant now and enjoy the trees’ benefits until it’s time to move on.
- Homeowners achieved a 109 percent return on landscaping dollars spent, higher than any other home improvement, according to a Michigan University study. Trees especially increase the property value of your home by 15 to 20 percent.
- Strategically placed trees create shade and help save up to 56 percent on annual air-conditioning costs. Trees such as evergreens, placed appropriately around the house, can reduce the need for heating by 20 to 50 percent in winter.
- Trees increase curb appeal. Buyers are willing to spend 3 to 7 percent more on homes with ample trees rather than few or no trees. The presence of street trees may also reduce time on the market by an average of 1.7 days.
- Trees also clean the air we breathe, decrease air pollution, support wildlife, slow stormwater runoff, conserve rainwater, buffer noise pollution, and bolster people’s health.
What to Consider When Selecting Trees
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 acidic 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.
A tree's growth rate also may have an effect 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 needlelike foliage.
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.
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.
Native Trees for Your Region
Because they’ve adapted to our local climates, North American natives often require less care and benefit wildlife most. Horticulture expert Barbara Damrosch suggests the following as well-suited to today’s more compact yards.
- Blue palo verde
- Western redbud