Selecting the Right Tree for Your Landscape
By Craig England Jr., Red Butte Garden Horticulturist
Choosing to plant a tree in the landscape is a long-lasting investment for a home, garden, and community that deserves careful consideration. Thoughtful tree choice and placement can provide benefits and value to a property for generations. Poorly chosen, it can be a disappointing and costly mistake. This article will cover specific considerations important for selecting the right tree for the right location.
Selecting the right tree should begin with a site analysis. Take stock of existing vegetation and location of structures. Note the location of overhead and below ground utilities. With any tree planting project, always contact Blue Stakes to mark underground utilities and avoid unseen hazards.
It is important to consider the current and future size of existing plants and trees. Also consider the surrounding landscape, adjacent properties, structures, and views. This analysis will give an idea of the space available in selecting the right tree for the site.
Doing a shade study will evaluate how the sun moves across the property. Consider seasonal changes in the sun angle and light requirements of existing plantings. A new tree can have a significant effect on the existing plantings surrounding it as it grows. A location that was once full sun, could become much shadier as a tree matures.
A soil test will give an exact idea of the structure, pH, and nutrient quality of the soil the tree will be growing in. A test can help inform the decision of whether to and how to amend the planting area. An inexpensive soil test can be done with the Utah State University Analytical Laboratories (USUAL). The website includes instructions on collecting and submitting a soil sample.
One more thing to consider is water. Make note of the water holding capacity of the existing soil. A DIY percolation test can be done to learn more about how fast the site will drain. Information gained from a soil test will give insight into the existing soil matrix and how it will drain and hold moisture. Consider if this site is or will be irrigated, and what type of and frequency of irrigation the site will receive.
The Right Place
With the information gathered in the site analysis, the best locations to place a tree in the landscape can be considered. The right place will be where the tree fits into the site, creating desired benefits to the property without negatively interfering with existing views, structures, utilities, or plantings.
In Utah, with cool winters and hot summers, a well-placed tree can do a great deal to enhance the energy sustainability of existing structures. Deciduous trees can be planted on the south and west exposures of a structure to reduce the hot, afternoon sun in the summer while allowing warming sun to reach the structure in winter. Evergreen trees can be planted on the north side of homes to protect the structure from cold winter winds.
The mature tree size–height and spread–should be considered when locating a tree near any existing structure. While a tree may start small, as it matures, branches can damage roofs, eaves, and walls. Overhanging branches can clog up gutters with fallen fruits, leaves, or needles. Consider the growth habits of a tree’s roots and whether they will heave the pavement near driveways, patios, and sidewalks.
The Right Tree
Knowing the qualities of the site and having identified the potential locations that a tree could be placed, it is now time to choose the right tree for the space. Select a tree with the aesthetics desired that works best within the confines, cultural realities, and possibilities of the space.
Carefully match the cultural requirement of the potential tree to the specific qualities of the planting site. A tree can require full sun, or it could require the protection of a shadier location. The water needs of the tree must match the water available to it on the site, or adjustments must be made to accommodate the new planting.
Consider the characteristics of the tree itself. Color, form, size, and seasonal interest are all considerations. Many tree forms are possible: pyramidal, weeping, columnar, to name a few. Trees grow to many sizes when mature, from true dwarf varieties to medium sized, compact trees to massive, stately shade trees. Also consider how fast a tree grows. Some large, long-lived trees have a slower rate of growth, so it is important to plan for the mature size of a tree. The tree may offer seasonal interest with spring flowers, fall color, interesting bark, or other unique features. It can be ornamental or fruit bearing, evergreen or deciduous.
Trees can also offer ecological benefits or detriments. Some characteristics, such as thorns, flowers, or fruit, may attract certain species of birds or pollinators. Be sure the tree chosen is resistant to known insects and diseases in the region, and be aware that large plantings of a single species can encourage the spread of insects and diseases. Some species can be considered noxious weeds in a specific region, so check to see that a tree is not included on a local noxious weeds list (see Utah Noxious Weeds list).
When it comes down to it, the right tree provides the qualities desired within the confines of the space available. Careful consideration of the planting site and its features can help to ensure the long-term success of the tree selected. Planting a tree is a significant act and investment in a property and can provide benefits for generations.
Local Information about Trees
- Sign up for a class at Red Butte Garden ( https://www.redbuttegarden.org/adult-education)
- Utah State Extension on-line tool for selecting trees ( www.treebrowser.org )
- Utah Community Forest Council ( www.utahurbanforest.org )
- Your local city forester’s office
- Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands (https://ffsl.utah.gov/)
- Tree Utah (www.treeutah.org )