How to Pick a Tree for Your Yard

Sharing your yard with a tree can be a wonderful experience for the whole family, but it’s often very difficult to choose the right tree for you.

They come in all different shapes and sizes, some have flowers, other produce fruit: the possibilities are nearly endless, and it’s hard to know where to start.

To make things a little easier, we’ve written a helpful guide to give you some pointers on how to pick a tree for your yard that will be a great green companion for many years to come.

What to Consider When Picking a Tree

The first step in choosing the right tree for your situation is to think about why you want a tree.

Are you looking for shade? Trying to screen something? Do you want an evergreen tree like pine or laurel that will keep its leaves or needles all year round, or would you prefer a leafy, deciduous tree that will be bare in the winter, like oak, rowan, or cherry.

Would you like a tree that will quickly produce edible fruit or nuts? Or maybe you’re into climbing and need somewhere to practice?

Think carefully about what you’re trying to achieve with your tree, whether it’s decoration or function, and make a list of your must-have tree qualities. With that in mind, you can move on to learning which trees will be happiest where you live.

Evergreen Pine Tree
Photo by Salomon OFM on Unsplash

Check the Map

All plants, trees included, have their preferred climate zones. This is why you’ll never see a palm tree growing in the Arctic Circle!

You can find hardiness zone maps online for most regions and countries around the world, and once you know which zone you’re in, you can determine the most suitable trees for your location. This will help to ensure that your yard will never get too hot, too cold, too wet, or too dry for your chosen tree.

Look Closer to Home

Once you’ve identified your hardiness zone, it’s important to think about the weather conditions in your yard. Is it a wet area, windy or sheltered, full sun, partial shade, or full shade: try to learn as much as you can about the spot where you’d like to plant your tree.

The more you know, the better choices you can make, and the healthier your tree will be.

Yellow leaves of acer japonicum in spring
Photo by Yoksel Zok on Unsplash

Nourish the Roots

You’ll also need to find out a little more about the type of soil in your garden. Is it sandy, loamy, or heavy clay? Acid or alkaline? Acer prefer more acidic soils, but hawthorns are happier in alkaline areas.

Soil types are hugely important in determining a tree’s future growth and health, so it’s absolutely worth spending a little time to investigate this.

You can find lots of guides online that break down different types of soil and explain how to identify them, and pH paper, inexpensive and available from pharmacies or online, is super useful in allowing you to determine your soil’s acid-alkaline balance.

We wrote a full article listing some of the best trees for acidic soils which I highly recommend you read before getting your first tree.

The Environment Matters

If you can, choose a tree native to your local environment. The tree will be happier and so will the planet.

Beyond that, think of your local wildlife and how you might be able to support it with your new tree. If you’re happy to welcome bees into your garden, consider a tree with bee-friendly flowers. If you’d like to feed the birds or small furry creatures, look for a tree with edible berries in the autumn that attract wildlife.

Pretty cherry blossom flowers
Photo by Artur Łuczka on Unsplash

David or Goliath

Once you know what you want, and what your region and yard can accommodate, it’s time for the specifics. When it comes to selecting the best tree for your yard, size and shape are very important. You don’t want a tree that towers above your house; likewise if you’re trying to fill a large space, a small tree won’t work for you.

Some trees, like the columnar apple or Lombardy poplar, have a more upright form and are perfect for compact gardens, whereas others grow out and work perfectly in open spaces. Trees can be oval-shaped (American mountain ash), pyramidal (gingko biloba), domed (beech), or irregular (Scots pine), just to name a few different forms. And it’s always important to remember that a tree that fits beautifully in your yard now might seem a little out of place after ten years of growth.

Sometimes it can helpful to draw your house and yard roughly to scale and to plot your chosen tree at its full, mature size — height and girth — on your drawing. This can help to give you an idea of what to expect, and you won’t end up with an oak tree trying to push your house out of the way in a few decades.

YouTube video

Growth Rate

Not all trees grow at the same rate. If you’re needing something that will shoot up quite quickly, perhaps to block something unsightly or provide a bit of shade, you’ll need to consider this when making your decision. Bear in mind though that fast growth can equal increased maintenance, as the tree is unlikely to stop growing just because it’s achieved the height you need it to be.

Fast growers often keep on going.

Don’t Get Undermined

On the topic of size, it’s also worth remembering that trees grow down too. Both shallow and deep root systems can be a real danger to buildings and foundations: they displace soil, move stones, crack concrete, and pull water out of the surrounding area. Before you decide on any tree, make sure that your chosen spot is far enough away from your house.

There’s an oft-quoted golden rule which states that a tree’s root system will usually grow out at least as wide as the tree’s canopy, sometimes more. Some trees are more adapted to being near structures than others, so if your space is limited, consider one of those.

Banyan tree in Hawaii with large root system
Photo by Emma Gossett on Unsplash

Onto Aesthetics

It almost goes without saying that you want whatever tree you choose for your yard to look nice. But as everyone has a different idea of what that means, you’ll have to think a little about what it means to you. Do you want a tree with year-round interest, with colorful foliage in the autumn and even colorful twigs over winter?

The aesthetic appeal of a tree will vary according to the season, so think about what you’d like in terms of seasonal appeal. Maybe you only use your yard during the summer months. Or maybe you’ll see your tree through the window every day but love the simplicity of bare branches and beautiful bark during the colder months. Silver birch against a cold, grey sky is starkly stunning.

But Being Practical

If you want a tree for privacy or screening, you’ll need an evergreen, but depending on your area, you may have a choice between needles and glossy leaves. Flowering trees can be beautiful, and you’re sure to find one that you like given the range of colors and types available. Remember though that flowers have an aroma, and it might not always be one that you like!

Ideally, visit a garden center when your chosen tree is flowering just to make sure that you’re happy with it in real life: you can’t smell flowers through your computer screen.

And Sensible

The most beautiful tree in the world won’t work for you if it requires more maintenance than you can manage. Are you okay with leaves on the lawn in the autumn? Dropped fruit or nuts on the ground?

Oak trees are majestic, and their bark smells amazing in the sunshine, but come autumn you will be gifted with a thick carpet of crunchy brown leaves and acorns underfoot. If that doesn’t fill you with excitement, and you’d rather that your yard looked tidy all the time, you might be happier with a tree that rarely drops anything, like eucalyptus. (They smell wonderful too.) Or you might want to buy a rake along with your tree!

Close up Photo of an Acorn taken by Kira Nash
Photo by Kira Nash at kiakari

Under the Canopy

There are an enormous variety of trees available; with a little research and forethought, you should be able to choose the perfect one for you and start experiencing the many benefits of trees. And if books and the internet don’t give you the answers you need, consider asking your local tree surgeon or visiting an arboretum. People passionate about trees are always happy to help.

Whatever tree you choose, remember that trees are long-lived and it will be a part of your life and your yard for a long time. Take your time, choose carefully, and you’ll find something that will add interest and beauty to your yard for many years to come.

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