Choose the Right Tree

Follow these tips for finding the perfect plant for your yard.
Edwin Marty

A common mistake homeowners make when landscaping their yards is planting a good tree in the wrong spot. Usually this happens because people just don't know how large a tree or shrub will eventually become. Save yourself all the wasted energy and time of pruning overgrown plants by following some expert advice from Eddie Ray, co-owner of The Greenery in Huntsville, Alabama.  

What Do You Need?
"One of the most important things is knowing what you want from your trees and shrubs," says Eddie. "Working backward from there will guarantee that you end up with something beautiful and functional." Are you simply looking for something to add color to your yard, or do you need shade from the afternoon sun? Are you trying to block out the view of a street, or do you want a touch of color at your kitchen window? Use the box below to match your needs with the right plant.

The Best Spot
Once you know what you want, it's easy to find a good home for your plant. Eddie explains, "The key to getting trees and shrubs to grow well is giving them plenty of room. Pushing them up against the house or clumping them too close together will slow their growth tremendously and also create a lot of unnecessary maintenance."

A good rule of thumb is to plant your tree or shrub half its mature height from any building, walkway, or boundary. For instance, if planting a Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) that will one day grow 60 feet tall, place it at least 30 feet from your house or driveway. This might make your landscape seem stark or empty at first, but in the long run, you'll definitely appreciate the space.  Don't forget that an average tree will grow from a sapling to the top of a two-story house by the time a kindergartner heads off to college. Eddie suggests always buying plants with tags stating their mature sizes because individual selections can vary widely.

Bigger Isn't Always Better
Another common mistake homeowners make is trying to get an instant landscape. "The best way to waste money on your yard," says Eddie, "is to plant a really big tree." Now don't get him wrong; he'll happily sell you a 25-foot-tall red maple and even send out his crew to dig a big hole and plant it anywhere you want. But Eddie will just as quickly tell you that a smaller tree, one with a 2-inch-diameter trunk, can easily outgrow a larger tree because it will transition faster and is less likely to go into shock when planted. "You can buy trees wrapped in burlap (called balled and burlapped) or ones in pots," Eddie says. "Container-grown trees usually cost about 25% more but don't suffer from transplant shock as often as balled-and-burlapped trees do."

Fill in the Gaps

  • Use fast-growing perennials such as butterfly bushes, daisies, or salvias to fill in space while trees and shrubs are growing to their mature heights.
  • Plant ground covers such as ajuga, ivy, or sedum to add depth.
  • Choose dwarf selections of trees or shrubs to allow closer spacing. For instance, instead of planting a full-size Southern magnolia, try a selection that will grow to only 30 feet, such as 'Little Gem' or 'Bracken's Brown Beauty.'
  • Don't let a fast-growing filler plant choke out a slower-growing tree; be willing to remove a plant if it's causing competition.
     

"Choose the Right Tree" is from the October 2004 issue of Southern Living.