Hartley Magazine

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Plant the Right Tree – Every Time

Research your next tree with a series of simple steps

Plant the wrong geranium in your garden and you can always send it to compost heaven. But plant the wrong tree and you’ll waste money and time (often years). So what’s the best way to choose a tree?

Do your research, says Amy Ziffer, former staff editor for Fine Gardening, and owner of A Shady Lady Garden Design. She says gardeners tend to select trees the same way as other plants. “It’s often an emotional choice.” But in this case, it’s better to use your head, and then your heart. Here’s how.

“Think about function first,” Amy says. “Ask yourself—what do I want this tree to do?”

Answer the following questions to guide your eventual decision.

  • Soil – What’s your pH? Amy says you should also consider moisture levels—do you have drought or bog conditions? Is the texture friable or rock hard?
  • Size – How big do you want your tree to be at maturity? (Without pruning.)
  • Ornamental characteristics – Do you want flowers, bark, or good fall color?
  • Climate –What are your cold and heat zones? Also, Amy suggests, look at your overall weather patterns. Assuming it’s not in a greenhouse, will your tree encounter blasts of rain? High winds?

With these answers, you can now begin your research as a process of elimination. Amy uses the invaluable lists in the back of Michael Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs—An Illustrated Encyclopedia. (An online app is also available.)

  • Soil – Create your first long list by looking at “Tolerance to Compacted Soils, Drought and Heat,” or “Tolerance to Moist or Wet Soils.”
  • Size – Turn to “A Guide to Tree Sizes” and eliminate all those outside your height requirement.
  • Ornamental Characteristics – Narrow your choices by studying various lists like “Color and Fragrance” or “Bark.”
  • Climate – Look up your chosen trees in the encyclopedia section, but don’t read the entries. Skip to the last sentence of each for the zone information. Eliminate everything outside your zone. For cold hardiness safety, you could go down one or two zones.

As a final step, Amy suggests you discuss your trimmed list with a nearby agricultural extension agent. Eliminate any trees that are disease-prone in your particular locale.

Now you can engage your heart. With your top contenders, go back to the encyclopedia and revel in their full descriptions. Read more online. Choose what appeals to you. Often, Amy says, “We look for trees we remember fondly from other gardens.”