How to pick the perfect tree to plant in your yard

September 01, 2009|By ANNETTE IPSAN

Trees are a smart investment. Trees shade and cool us, filter pollutants and cut heating and cooling costs. They boost property values, engage our imaginations and beautify our backyards. Why wouldn't you want to plant a tree?

Fall is an ideal time to plant a tree. Planting in the fall gives a tree time to settle in before winter and means less watering for you. Now is a great time to start planning a fall tree purchase.

How do you pick the perfect tree? First, think about what you want. Do you want a shade tree or evergreen? Are you interested in spring blooms or fall color?

Where do you want your tree? Do you want to shade a deck, add a colorful accent or create an evergreen screen? Location dictates which trees will do well. Will the tree be in sun or shade? Is the soil dry or damp, poor or rich? Different trees thrive in different conditions.


Size matters. Do you want a small 15- to 20-foot tree to tuck under utility wires or fit into a tight corner? Or, do you need a larger tree to shade your home? Trees can be 10 feet tall or 60 feet tall, so planning ahead pays.

Next, think about shape and form. Do you want a "popsicle" tree with a single stem like a maple or a multi-branched tree like a crape myrtle? Do you prefer a round or oval shape or something more horizontal like a Kwanzan cherry? Do you need a dense form to block an eyesore or an airy leaf structure for dappled shade?

Now, grab a pitchfork. Yes, a pitchfork -- or a tall garden stake. "Plant" it where you want your tree and imagine it there. Go inside and look out the windows to see if you like the placement. Walk around to see if you like the view from all sides.

Check to see if there is enough clearance for the canopy, about 20 feet from the trunk on all sides for a larger tree. Move the stake if you're not happy. It's much easier and cheaper than moving a tree.

Write down what you want in a tree -- purpose, size, location, shape, light and soil conditions -- and head for a nursery or two. Put your needs in writing, because it is easy to become overwhelmed with all the choices. Temptation is everywhere, so it's important to remember what you really need.

Before you look at any trees at a nursery, talk with a member of the staff. Ask for suggestions based on your needs. Discuss the pros and cons of the trees they recommend including maintenance, longevity and insect and disease problems. Ask to see photos of the trees to see their spring blooms, fall color or mature shape.

Now you're ready to look at a few trees. Check out three types of trees to keep the decision manageable. Once you've narrowed your choice to a type of tree, pick the best, healthiest tree to make your own.

How can you spot a healthy tree? Look for a straight trunk with no blemishes (gashes, holes, cracks, rough pruning cuts or dark or missing bark.) Single-trunk trees should have one solid central branch and balanced branching on both sides. Leaves or needles should be green and pliable. There should be no signs of insects or disease.

Take your time. Visit several nurseries. Collect information and suggestions as you go. Trees are a major investment. Make sure your choice is one that will bring you enjoyment for years to come.

Annette Ipsan is the Extension educator for horticulture and the Master Gardener program in Washington County for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. She can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1604, or by e-mail at

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