In this article, we walk you through:
- how to choose the best tree to plant this fall,
- the questions to answer before choosing a specific tree species and/or cultivar, and
- what to look at when selecting the tree specimen that you’ll bring home to plant.
Autumn is Here – Time to Plant Trees!
You may have heard the slogan “Fall is for planting” (garden centers are particularly fond of it) and assumed it just applies to annual flowers to add curb appeal to your autumn landscape. But it actually applies to other plants as well. In fact, fall is a great time to plant trees.
Trees planted in the early fall, when temperatures are lower and rainfall has begun, have the best chance of surviving. You can plant at other times of the year, but your tree may experience more stress at planting and during establishment.
But with so many trees to choose from, how do you pick the right one(s) for your property?
Narrowing Down Your Tree Choices
First, consider what you want the tree to do for you. For example, does it need to:
- screen an unsightly view,
- create a sound barrier,
- add color to the spring landscape,
- feed your family,
- sustain pollinators and/or wildlife, or
- brighten up your yard in fall.
Next, look at trees that are in the size range that will best fit your landscape. For example, a willow oak can reach heights of over 80 feet and wouldn’t look right looming over a small, single-story home. On the other hand, a star magnolia generally tops out at 20 feet tall and about half that in width; it would look small and insignificant planted near a large, 2- or 3-story building.
From there, narrow your choices down based on whether or not it meets your needs. Look at characteristics such as whether the tree:
- is deciduous or evergreen,
- produces flowers and/or fruit,
- has toxic or poisonous properties (it wouldn’t be a good choice if dogs will have access to it),
- is allergenic,
- has bright fall colors, and
- any other considerations that are important to you.
Once you have a shortlist of possible trees, move on to the questions below.
What to Know Before Choosing a Tree
Selecting the right tree is based on more than just the characteristics of the tree itself – it also depends on the location where it will be planted. Your property may not provide the right conditions for some of your chosen trees, while others may thrive in those conditions. Ask yourself the questions below before landing on a final choice.
- Is the location you’ve chosen right for your tree?
- Does it provide the right amount of sunlight?
- Is it too exposed to wind or hot sun?
- Too shady and cool?
The needs of trees are specific to their genus and species, so read up first or ask a nursery professional to make sure you’ve chosen a good candidate for your location.
Soil Type & Structure
- Is your soil right for your tree?
- Is it fast-draining or sandy? Or does it have a lot of clay that leaves the soil wet and poorly-draining?
- Too acidic? Or alkaline?
- Is it poor in nutrients or full of organic matter?
Your soil will determine which trees will do well in the soil you have. Choosing a tree that fits your soil is better than trying to change your soil to fit a tree.
Mature Size & Shape
- Is your tree’s mature size right for the space you’ve chosen?
- How tall will it grow? How wide?
- What shape will it be? A columnar (narrow, tall) tree will fit into a much smaller area than one the same height but with a rounded shape.
- How low do the bottom branches grow? Will you be able to walk or drive under or around the tree as it grows?
A young, small tree will look very different after it grows and matures, so you’ll want to make sure you’ve given it enough space to develop a naturally balanced branch structure and crown. Excessive pruning of a tree that’s too large is not healthy for the tree and creates extra yard waste for you to deal with.
Proximity to Your Home
- How close is your house or other buildings to the proposed planting location?
- What about sidewalks, driveways, or patios?
- Does the tree have strong, fast-growing roots, or roots that spread a long way?
Planting trees too close to buildings and foundations is very common and leads to future problems. Check the mature spread of your tree, and plant at least half that distance from structures.
Access to Water
- How much water will the tree need? How often?
- Do you have irrigation?
Young trees have small root systems (no larger than the nursery container size they’re in) and will need irrigation to expand their roots into the soil. If you don’t have an irrigation system with a valve dedicated to trees, you will need to water by hand (with a soaker hose or a hose running at a low volume).
TIP: An irrigation system set up for lawns or small perennials or shrubs will not provide the amount and rate of water that a growing tree needs. You risk the tree developing a shallow root system that can easily die during hot weather or a break in the irrigation cycle, or that will not anchor the tree sufficiently when it reaches mature size. Shallow roots in lawns or planting areas can also be killed by mowers, edgers, and soil cultivation.
Access to Sunlight
- Will your new tree grow and shade out existing plants?
- Is it evergreen?
You won’t want to plant an evergreen tree where it will block winter sunlight from reaching your windows or prevent sunlight from reaching neighboring plants.
Evaluate the Tree Before You Buy
Once you’ve selected your tree species, it’s time to evaluate your specimen. Look for the following:
- Evenly distributed branches, growing evenly around the main leader, or trunk. Don’t choose a tree that has been badly pruned, or that has missing or broken branches; if it has a poor shape now, it won’t look any better as it matures.
- Check that the tree has a good root system that is not winding around the rootball. Roots that have grown around the base of the trunk can girdle the tree as their diameter expands. A tree with girdling roots is difficult to save when their own roots are strangling them.
- Make sure the roots are plump (not dried out) and healthy. For smaller trees, you can lay the tree down and pull the pot partway off the rootball to check out the roots (be careful to disturb them as little as possible).
- Look for healthy leaves and no signs of pests or pathogens. Don’t bring problems into your garden if you can avoid it. An unhealthy tree is unlikely to improve (or even survive) after the shock of being planted in your yard.
If you want a new tree to look established right away, you will have to opt for a large nursery box or larger tree with a burlapped root ball. Trees of these larger sizes are better installed by professionals who have the equipment to handle the size and weight of larger trees without damaging them, as well as to dig the required volume of excavated soil.
If all of this feels overwhelming already, remember that tree care professionals are trained to consider all of the above and can help you choose the right tree for your yard, recommend where to buy it (or buy it for you), and can also plant it.
If you’d like assistance in selecting and/or planting the perfect tree, give the tree care pros at Beaver Tree Service a call – we’re happy to help!