August not only brings us a new school year but also marks the beginning of the fall planting season. Warm soils, cooler air temperatures and plentiful rainfall all help plants thoroughly establish themselves before the onset of winter.   

Looking out across my summer garden, the most colorful plants are the first to capture my attention. Groups of Hydrangea, Astilbe, Coneflower, Daylilies... a symphony of color! But without the trees to set the stage, to provide the backdrop, these colorful notes remain somewhat flat. 

I have so many favorite trees; the Tricolor Beech, Lacebark Pine, Variegated Zelkova and Ginkgo to name just a few.  Some grow stately and tall, others are upright and narrow. Weeping specimens, evergreen backdrops and towering shade trees of all shapes, colors and textures work together to define the space that is my garden. 

Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.  -Warren Buffett

Over the past 18 months there have been a considerable number of trees wiped out by wind storms, insects and/or disease creating significant openings in local landscapes. Selecting new trees to fill these spaces requires some thought and planning. All too often, I observe clients in the nursery overwhelmed by the sheer volume of nursery plants available. Trying to select the perfect tree can be a daunting task! It may be helpful to better understand the methodology that I utilize to help select a suitable tree for a specific garden space.

When I make my site evaluation, I first think not of a specific tree or plant but of a silhouette... a size and shape that is best suited to the available space. Height and width are the most important and obvious factors, but I also consider whether a high-branched (lollipop) or a low-branched tree would be most suitable. Is winter coverage/interest (evergreen) important? What are the light and moisture conditions? Would a fast-growing tree be more beneficial or would a slower growing or dwarf tree provide better results?  Is a blooming specimen desired? 

Once I have determined these factors I can then narrow my selection to the specific trees that match my needs. That giant nursery full of plants is now narrowed down to a manageable 3 or 4 selections that I can work with.

When it comes time to select a specific tree what qualities am I looking for? That, of course, depends on the tree.  If I want something that can be easily transported and planted I will want a container tree - something that was grown in a pot. These will be much lighter in weight than those that were harvested from the earth and have many additional advantages. Container grown plants retain 100% of their root system and will not be as stressed as plants that have been dug from the ground. They are also readily available year-round where there are limitations when B&B (balled and burlapped) trees can be harvested. B&B trees are considered by many to be heartier having been grown in native soils. They are available in larger sizes (instant gratification) and less likely to blow over once planted. Often, they adapt to their new site more quickly than container grown trees do.    

There are several attributes to look for when selecting a tree (above and beyond general health and vigor).  When selecting a shade tree, I am looking for a balanced branching habit, a straight trunk and a full canopy.  Japanese Maples, Dogwoods and weeping specimens are examples of trees that rely on structure and architecture to enhance their beauty. For these, you may need a particular “look” to best fit your space.

Evergreen trees are the most difficult trees to select. Many of our most popular evergreen trees are artificially produced in a dense and full form to meet the expectations of the consuming public. Unless this method of care is maintained, they quickly out-grow this form to their more natural state forming an awkward profile. In many cases (especially with larger growing trees), it is better to choose less dense, more natural looking trees that will more easily transition to their natural form. 

Another consideration is the availability of light, a common issue when planting screens along the edge of wooded areas.  Most nursery plants are grown under full sun conditions to produce evenly full growth. Once transplanted, the growth on the “shady side” of the tree will thin out in direct proportion to the amount of sunlight it receives. If the tree gets only 60 percent sunshine, it will likely cast off 40 percent of its current growth density. 

Trees have so much to offer. They are an investment in the future. Whether it is to block an unsightly view, to cast cooling shade on a patio or to provide a stunning floral display, trees are the answer.

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago... the second-best time is today.  -Chinese proverb

Now go outside and have fun in the dirt!