How to pick the perfect tree

Southern magnolias add beauty to a landscape but large fallen leaves can be a maintenance issue.

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

Joyce Kilmer

I love trees.  The wind whispering through a grove of pines.  An oak’s limbs raised to the sky in winter.  The pink pom-poms of a cherry tree in spring.   They are nature’s art.

But you can’t just plunk any old tree anywhere and guarantee grandeur.  It takes some thought and planning.  Make “right plant, right place” your mantra.

First, look at the spot where you want a tree.  Is it sunny or shady?  Wet or windy?  

Do you need a 20-foot tree to tuck under power lines?  Or do you have room for a towering 60-footer?  Break out the measuring tape and see how wide your tree can be, too.  Size matters.

Now, think about what you want.  Do you want an evergreen or deciduous tree?  Does it need to flower?  Deliver show-stopping fall color?  Provide shade?  

Are you screening an undesirable view?  Do you want to support wildlife with a native tree that offers food and shelter?  

At this point, you have a wish list.  You want a small, sun-loving, flowering tree to add a splash of spring color to your front yard and a tall evergreen to screen your neighbor’s garage.  

Southern magnolias add beauty to a landscape but large fallen leaves can be a maintenance issue.
Southern magnolias add beauty to a landscape but large fallen leaves can be a maintenance issue.

Now it’s time to hit the books or websites to find some trees that meet your criteria.  Dirr’s Hardy Tree and Shrubs is a favorite for its brief descriptions and color photos of the whole tree, leaves, flowers, fruit and bark. 

Make sure the trees you pick will survive our winters.  We are in cold hardiness zone 6B, so the zone listing should cover that number.  For example, a tree listed as hardy in zones 4 to 7 would be fine here.

Also note any special needs of the tree.  Kousa dogwood fruit is lovely, but messy as it falls.  So don’t place one by a sidewalk or deck.  Ditto with sweetgum whose spiky sweetgum seedpods are especially hard on bare feet.

Oaks drop acorns so they’re not good by a pool. Crape myrtles hate wind.  Goldenraintree makes billions of seedlings.  Heed the warnings.  

Oaks are a wonderful native choice for landscapes.
Oaks are a wonderful native choice for landscapes.

As you do your research, compile a list of trees that make the cut, then head to a nursery or two.  

Trees come in large containers or balled and burlapped rootballs called B&Bs.  Look for a solid root ball, secure wrapping and roots contained in the burlap in a B&B tree.  

Does the tree have a good overall shape?  Are the leaves or needles deep green?  Eliminate trees with damaged bark, rot or circling roots that can strangle a tree.  

Check the roots of a container plant by asking a staff member to slide it out of the container.  The roots should be light colored and not circling tightly inside the pot. 

Have high standards. If a tree doesn’t pass inspection, pass it by.  A tree is an investment and you want to make it a good one.As you sip lemonade in the dappled shade of a willow oak or enjoying the confetti rain of cherry blossoms, I hope you’ll agree with Joyce Kilmer as she concludes:

Poems are made by fools like me
But only God can make a tree.

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

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