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Complete Guide to Choose the Perfect Tree for Your Yard

Oct 11, 2023 | Guides/How-to's

Choosing the right tree can feel overwhelming because of the huge investment of time and money it can represent: even the small trees can be an expensive upfront investment and they are not easily moved once established. They are the backbone of a landscape design as large and permanent elements around which other plantings can be integrated and can provide multiple benefits at once. Asking yourself the right questions is crucial to ensure that you pick the perfect tree that best fits your landscape.

This article will help you take you through the most important considerations such as site conditions, type of tree and, placement to help you demystify tree selection.

Size Up the Growing Space

Match Growing Conditions to Your Tree

Winter temperatures

First note your hardiness zones, which can be used for narrowing your selections for tree species that could withstand winter in your area. Next, assess soil and light conditions. These are essential for picking a tree that will thrive in your yard since not all are equally well suited to your site conditions.

Storm-blog_choose a tree_hardiness zones

Sunlight

Begin by taking note of the number of hours of direct sunlight your spot receives and at which time of day. For example, afternoon sun is harsher than morning sun and some trees like Japanese maples prefer to have a bit of protection in the afternoon. Less than 4 hours of sun per day is considered full shade, 4-6 hours part-shade and 6 or more hours full sun. Most trees thrive in full sun, but many trees can tolerate part-shade.

Soil

Also take note of the soil. Is it well-drained, always dry or always damp? Is it sandy, heavy clay, or dark and fluffy? The interesting thing about soil quality is that it is a bit of a two-way street: it will impact which tree will do well in that spot, but the tree you choose can also change the soil. For example, willows love being in an area with a lot of water and maples can absorb a lot of water from average soil making the area very dry for other plants. For more information on how to have healthy soil for your new tree, take a look at this post.

Assess nearby structures

Mature trees can be dozens of feet tall and wide which means that their roots will also be extensive. To make sure they don’t cause problems in the future, measure the distance from your planting spot to nearby structures. Of particular importance are water pipes and septic systems, power lines, and any building with a foundation. For example, willows are notorious for liking water and can infiltrate water pipes and septic drainage fields causing very expensive problems to fix. 

Also take note of sidewalks and property lines; some municipalities have regulations about how far from these a tree can be planted.

Now the burning question …

How far from the house should a tree be?

https://deepgreenpermaculture.com/2019/07/22/how-far-do-large-tree-roots-extend/

This is a complicated question to answer because it varies based on the tree species and site conditions. Roots tend to extend farther if the ground is dry or if there is a lack of nutrients, but not all trees have tough roots that can cause damage.

Research has shown that a tree’s roots will extend about 2-3 times the radius of the crown (the leafy canopy). The image below can give you an idea of just how far that can be!

At the bare minimum, trees should be planted about the canopy radius away from structures. For example, if you look at a plant tag at a nursery and it indicated the tree will be 30 feet wide at maturity, you would want to plant it at least 15 feet away from your home.

Narrow down your tree list

Now for the fun part, picking out which kind of tree to plant!

Deciduous vs evergreen?

Perhaps the easiest question is whether you are looking for a deciduous tree that will loose its green leaves in winter, or a conifer that will provide structure to your landscape year-round. Both have their advantages and the next paragraphs can help you determine which one would be best if you are unsure.

property, house, real estate

Consider what you want the tree for

Perhaps the most important factor is the function of the tree.

“Are you looking for more shade, color, or privacy for your backyard? Or better birdwatching and supporting native wildlife?”

By picking the right tree, you can combine several functions. Fruit trees like native crabapples can attract wildlife both in early spring by providing a beautiful show of flowers and in winter with fruit for overwintering birds, offer dappled shade in summer, and a flush of colour in fall with red or golden leaves.

tree, park, autumn

If you are planting for wildlife, don’t discount evergreens. They can provide important shelter for smaller birds in large open areas: they like to take refuge in their branches when predators approach.

This beautiful linden tree provides welcome shade and flowers that smell heavenly and are a favourite of pollinators.

How big can it get? 

To reduce maintenance costs and time, a tree needs to be able to grow to its full size without the need to be pruned for height. So how tall can your tree reach? In the video above, I wanted it as tall as possible but without casting shade on the roof since we hope to add solar panels in the future.

As mentioned above, if you have less distance between your tree planting site and nearby structures, select a tree that will remain smaller.

The question of cultivars

Luckily, nowadays, with the selective breeding and propagation of plants, many species can be found in dwarf or semi-dwarf cultivars ideal for small spaces. Your local garden centre should be able to help you choose the specific variation that would fit in your garden and is available in your area. 

So how do you pick the right tree?

By getting a clear picture of where your new tree will be placed and what services you want this tree to provide. Matching the tree species to the environment you will provide it, is key to reducing maintenance costs and ensuring your new tree will thrive.

Brainstorming these questions can seem like a lot of work, but planting the right tree can reduce maintenance and will have you enjoying it for years to come. As the Chinese proverb goes: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

If you are curious about how I plant my trees, take a look at this little video.

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