Trees add beauty and so much more. Trees in your backyard can be home to many different types of wildlife. They can also reduce your heating and cooling costs, help clean the air, add beauty and color, provide shelter from the wind and sun, and add value to your home.
Choosing a tree should be a well thought-out decision. Tree planting can be a significant investment of money and time. Proper selection can provide you with years of enjoyment as well as significantly increase the value of your property. An inappropriate tree for your property can be a constant maintenance problem or even a hazard. Before you buy, take advantage of the abundant references on gardening at local libraries, universities, arboretums, parks where trees are identified, native plant and gardening clubs, and nurseries. Some questions to consider in selecting a tree include:
What purpose will this tree serve? Trees can serve numerous landscape functions including beautification, screening of sights and sounds, shade and energy conservation, and wildlife habitat.
Is the species appropriate for your area? Reliable nurseries will not sell plant material that is not suitable for your area. However, some mass marketers have trees and shrubs that are not winter hardy in the area sold. Even if a tree is hardy, it may not flower consistently from year to year at the limits of its useful range due to late spring freezes. If you are buying a tree for the spring flowers and fall fruits, this may be a consideration. In warmer climates, there may not be a long enough period of cool temperatures for some species, such as apples, to develop flowers. Apples and other species undergo vernalization, requiring a period of near-freezing temperatures that cause changes in the plant, resulting in the production of flowers.
Be aware of microclimates. Microclimates are very localized areas where weather conditions may vary from the norm. A very sheltered yard may support vegetation not normally adapted to the region. On the other hand, a north-facing slope may be significantly cooler or windier than surrounding areas and survival of normally adapted plants may be limited.
Select trees native to your area. They will be more tolerant of local weather and soil conditions, enhance natural biodiversity in your neighborhood, and be more beneficial to wildlife than many non-native trees. Avoid exotic trees that can invade other areas, crowd out native plants, and harm natural ecosystems.
TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Susan Patterson recommends, "It is always wise to take a soil sample before planting a tree to be sure that your soil will provide the necessary nutrients that the tree needs to thrive."
How big will it get? When planting a small tree, it is often difficult to imagine that in 20 years it could be shading your entire yard. Unfortunately, many trees are planted and later removed when the tree grows beyond the dimensions of the property.
TIP: Susan suggests, "Always consider tree placement with respect to structures, utility lines, property lines and other trees and vegetation in your landscape."
What is the average life expectancy of the tree? Some trees can live for hundreds of years. Others are considered "short-lived" and may live for only 20 or 30 years. Many short-lived trees tend to be smaller ornamental species. Short-lived species should not necessarily be ruled out when considering plantings. They may have other desirable characteristics, such as size, shape, tolerance of shade, or fruit, that would be useful in the landscape. These species may also fill a void in a young landscape, and can be removed as other larger, longer-lived species mature.
Does it have any particular ornamental value such as leaf color or flowers and fruits? Some species provide beautiful displays of color for short periods in the spring or fall. Other species may have foliage that is reddish or variegated and can add color in your landscaping year round.
Trees bearing fruits or nuts can provide an excellent source of food for many species of wildlife. However, some people consider some fruit and nut bearing trees to be "dirty."
Does it have any particular insect, disease, or other problem that may reduce its usefulness? Certain insects and diseases can be serious problems on some desirable species in some regions. Depending on the pest, control of the problem may be difficult and the pest may significantly reduce the attractiveness, if not the life expectancy, of the plant. Other species such as the silver maple (Acer saccharium) are known to have weak wood that is susceptible to damage in ice storms or heavy winds.
How common is this species in your neighborhood or town? Some species are over-planted. Increasing the natural diversity will provide habitat for wildlife and help limit the opportunity for a single pest to destroy all plantings. An excellent example of this was the American elm (Ulmus americana). This lovely tree was widely planted throughout the United States. With the introduction of Dutch elm disease, thousands of communities lost all their street trees in only a few years.
Is the tree evergreen or deciduous? Evergreen trees will provide cover and shade year round. They may also be more effective as a barrier for wind and noise. Deciduous trees will give you summer shade but allow the winter sun to shine in. This may be a consideration for where to place the tree in your yard.
Courtesy of the US Dept. of Agriculture.