The Selection Process

A young Pin Oak's ample canopy in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

A young Pin Oak’s ample canopy (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

With the landscape in hibernation mode, there’s no time like the present to view your blank palette and think about ways to kick it up a notch.  In a recent article, Winter Bones, I shared some of my favorite trees and shrubs for long season interest.  But there is another consideration when it comes to selecting a tree for your property, one that requires a little more thought and research.  In this case, size does matter, and surprisingly even the most knowledgeable gardeners (myself included) often neglect to determine exactly how big a tree might become over time.  If you observe landscapes as you drive around, I’m sure you’ve witnessed dozens of trees planted too close to a residence or under power lines, resulting in unnecessary tree massacres.  But it doesn’t have to be this way . . .

A birches form adds interest to a shrub border in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Bright birch limbs add interest to a shrub border (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Lots of plant catalogs are filling our mailboxes now, so the timing is right to look at potential additions to our yard, while having the opportunity to review their many visual options; leaf color, flowering, bark and form.  Then, take it a step further and carefully scrutinize the capacity for height, width, and growth rate.  Instead of making an impulsive purchase based on the seductive appearance of a tree specimen, we can confidently stroll into a nursery with a list of candidates that will fill the position without overflowing the boundaries.  Here’s a few of the elements I consider before introducing a new form to the landscape:

  • Are there now, or will there be any facilities in or near where I want to plant this tree?  For example, power and utility lines (both above or below ground), septic pipes or access points, property lines and nearness to foundations.  Trees too close to a septic or foundation may cause damage from intrusive root systems.  If any service needs to be done to septic or utility lines, your tree’s roots (or the tree itself) may be compromised.
  • Am I providing enough room around the tree so that it may grow freely, having access to the proper amount of sunlight and airflow?  Can I move around the tree easily (as it grows) to mulch and prune if necessary?  As the tree grows will it shade out an area (such as a pool or patio) where I will want sun exposure?
  • If using a foundation planting, will it block access to a window or doorway over time? Can it be pruned to keep a formal shape if I desire?  If evergreen, does the color compliment my home?  If deciduous,  does it have an interesting form through the winter months?
A mix of evergreens provide seasonal color for foundation in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

A mix of evergreens provide seasonal color for foundation plantings (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Once you have answered these questions, and narrowed down the criteria, it’s time to plan for the new addition.  When I have a blank spot to fill in an area such as a garden or near the foundation, I like to look at the surrounding plantings and consider how this new tree or shrub can add more interest to the composition.  It could be something as simple as a leaf size or flower, or something more specific, such as a form that is rounded versus a random, more informal shape.  When I have a garden filled with perennials and deciduous shrubs, I might want to incorporate some evergreen foliage.  In a setting with lots of evergreens, I might want to consider an interesting deciduous architecture or something with colorful bark.  Again, the ultimate size of your new shrub or tree must be at the forefront of your plan.

A properly placed sweetgum doesn't block view in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

A properly sited sweetgum doesn’t block pastoral view (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

When I want to add a tree to the open landscape, I like to examine the terrain from many angles, and especially from the points I feel it will be most frequently viewed from.  When I chose a site for my sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), I knew it could grow to 70 feet tall and 30 feet wide.  I wanted to be sure that it was balanced in the landscape (not too close to anything else) and would not block my favorite view from the deck out to my horses pasture.  In another example, I planted a pin oak in our open back yard to provide some privacy from a new development.  The Quercus palustris, a native shade tree tolerant of moist soils that grows to 70 feet tall and almost as wide, has already grown almost 20 feet tall in 8 years.

Use dwarf & low growing shrubs for open views in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Use dwarf trees & low growing shrubs to maintain open views (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

For deciduous trees that won’t become too outrageous in size, consider stewartia, magnolia or Japanese maples.  Massive deciduous trees such as sugar maple and sycamore are traditional New England plantings for big open spaces.  Willows and birches are fast growers that won’t completely smother out the sun, and some can be pruned to keep smaller.  Evergreens run the gamut, from tall and narrow to short and wide spread.  Because evergreens are difficult to keep pruned and may quickly outgrow an area (I learned this the hard way), select dwarf varieties or plan on having to remove them once they outgrow an area.  But most importantly, have fun and enjoy the process!


  1. Bravo! Thank you for helping not make more mistakes with my tree plantings…. The pictures are gorgeous, I’m glad I don’t have to take care of those!

    • You’re very welcome, Patty! Someone should benefit from my mistakes! Hopefully these tips will save you from some that I’ve made. And thank you for writing~

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

A Garden for All