Generally long-lived, trees give a sense of time, history, and continuity to a garden and community. They also lend a sense of place—geographic identity. Palm trees denote tropical climes, magnolias and bald cypress recall the South, and fir trees thrive in the cool forests of the North. So if you have space, consider enhancing your long-term landscaping with a tree or two. Take your time and heed the following advice when making your selections.
FOCUS ON FUNCTION
The key to picking the best trees for your garden is to determine the function you want them to play in the landscape and then narrow down the possibilities to identify the best tree for the job. Possible reasons you may want a tree are to screen a view, provide shade, create a focal point, or give a splash of floral colour or golden autumn foliage.
Think where the tree will go. Is there a lot of space for the tree to spread, or do you need a compact or fastigiate variety that will fit in a tight corner? Should you look for a “tidy” tree that doesn’t shed or drop fruit near a pond or patio? Will a spreading, aggressive root system threaten the foundation of structures such as your home, patio, or a wall?
KNOW YOUR SOIL
Know whether your soil is acidic (typical of woodlands) or alkaline (clay soil usually is), and select trees that adapt to that condition. If you are unsure, have your soil tested by your local Cooperative Extension.
Available moisture is an important consideration. All newly planted trees need to be watered, but once established they should be able to live off the natural rainfall. In situations where drainage is poor, select trees such as some oak, elm, maple, and magnolia species that tolerate moist to wet soil conditions.
LET THERE BE LIGHT
Light is very important. Pay attention to the sun and light requirements of the plants you are choosing, and be aware of how much light is available in the site you have in mind. If light levels are low, opt for a shade-tolerant specimen such as a Japanese maple, hornbeam, or Japanese snowbell (Styrax).
THWART OFF PESTS
Pest and disease resistance is important, especially in areas affected by problems such as bark beetles, Hemlock woolly adelgid, Dutch elm disease, fire blight, and other blights, pests, and diseases. Check with your local nursery for recommendations for pest- and disease-resistant stock.
LOCATION IS KEY
Once the choice is narrowed down to plants adapted to your garden conditions, think about how you plan to use them. A lot of trees have invasive roots, making them unsuitable along a driveway or patio or near the house. If planted along a wall to soften a bare expanse of a building, the tree needs to have a contained root system and a narrow canopy.
Cut Away Tip
The definitive reference book about trees and shrubs for North America is Dirr’s Encyclopaedia of Trees and Shrubs by Michael A. Dirr. The book lists hundreds of trees and includes essential details for identification, planting, care, suitability in different environments, the merits (or not) of many named hybrids, plus details of Dirr’s firsthand experience with each. Full-color photographs illustrate the trees’ habits in winter, distinctive bark patterns, flowers, fall colour, and more.
“A wise planner projects the mature size of the plant and
allows room for it to reach its limits.”
Along a patio or deck, look for trees that are attractive up close, perhaps with interesting bark and pretty or fragrant flowers, fruit, or foliage. Avoid messy plants that drop sticky fruit or sap or constantly shed, and ones that hog water and nutrients from nearby lawns and plantings.
A common mistake people make when choosing and placing trees is overlooking the ultimate size of the specimen. It is sad to see a tree with a potentially lovely form squashed up too close to a house. It is clear that when the tree was young the distance was fine, but no allowances were made for its inevitable growth. By the same token, developers do homeowners no service when they plant fast-growing trees that will ultimately be too large for a small lot.
A wise planner projects the mature size of the plant and allows room for it to reach its limits. If the gaps are a worry, consider mixing long-lived, slow-growing plants with quick-growing ones that have shorter lives. The rapid growers will soon fill in the gaps, and by the time they need to be removed to make room for the slow-and-steady plants, they will be past their prime and ready to be removed.
Planting a tree is an investment in the future. Choose wisely, and your tree will bring you and future generations pleasure for years.
WRITTEN BY CATRIONA TUDOR ERLER
Photography provided by ©iStockphoto.com/g-stockstudio