Selecting A Tree -Explained

Ilona Erwin

Tree FAQ

I came across some excellent resources to guide a homeowner in selecting trees for their landscape. It occurred to me that the terms might be confusing to someone who wasn’t experienced in gardening, and thought I add in my own two cents to the conversation.

(1) The first resource is Northern Gardening’s article,Selecting the Right Tree for Your Home Landscape, by Terry Yockey (who has had a valuable garden website for a long time- this man knows his stuff!). He tells you, in detail, to consider:

What is the …

  • Hardiness
  • Ornamental qualities
  • Available space
  • Soil conditions
  • Growth rate and longevity
  • Water requirements
  • Pest resistance
  • See his article for detailed tips on these considerations
  • Hardiness is one characteristic that determines whether the money spent and time involved in growing a tree was well invested. One very cold winter could spell the end of your tree.It is easy to find the zone you are in on a hardiness map, and if the nursery doesn’t have the tree labeled (unusual), any tree identification or profile should list it. Ohio ranges from zone 5 to 6
  • There are trees with shapes that are narrow (look for the word ‘fastigiate‘), dwarf, or wide spreading. A tree that fits its space requires less pruning and is healthier.
  • Soil conditions are very important since the tree will be there a long time -they live longer than we do, in most cases. Drainage, pH, and fertility, as well as type of soil (clay or sandy, etc) all matter to a tree.
  • Do you live in an area that suffers droughts? Then a tree that is native to swampy areas is not a good choice. Check the information on the origination of the tree; the native conditions tells you much of what a tree likes.
  • Not all trees take a long time to grow, and not every tree is likely to live a long time. I chose a sand cherry for a part of my garden , and it was quite beautiful for a long time, but then it became ragged, died, and now it is gone. It lasted perhaps 15 years.
  • Some trees just thrive no matter what, but many require their need for water to be well-tuned. The trouble with larger trees is that they don’t show their stress right away, and take time to die from conditions that were poor several years earlier. Match the tree with the moisture profile of the climate; evergreens will be more sensitive to variations in their requirements.
  • Pest resistance becomes extremely important when an invasion comes to your neck of the woods. The sword of Damocles hangs over those who plant the Ash trees, ever since the Emerald borer arrived in the USA.

(2) The second resource to help you make the best choice is this video from Backyard Farmer, which was attached to that article, I’m going to explain a few of the terms and some of the advice found in this video.

What Do Landscapers Mean By That?

Quick size?

Lots of people fall into the trap of wanting instant gardens… they plant too close or plant a tree that gets big quickly. Why is that not always a good choice? Many of the quickly growing trees are weak, and fail in high winds and storms… they either lose large branches or perhaps a whole side of the tree in normal storm conditions.

Silver maples and Bradford pears are examples of this type of tree. They have their use, but are they really right for you? Did you know that many trees have growth patterns? Some shoot up right away, others take their time in their youth and then have a “growth spurt”.

If you plant something that gives good growth after a few years in the ground you might have a better tree that gives you more longlasting satisfaction than if you settled for the fast grower that is disfigured by damage or just doesn’t have all the qualities that another species might have had for your situation.

What’s the problem with ash trees?

Unfortunately, we have imported a problem insect called the Emerald ash borer. It will eventually reach and kill your ash tree, because as of now there is nothing that can be done to prevent the spread of these insects and the damage they cause.

What is a street tree?

A street tree has certain qualities that people desire when they have sidewalks: no nuisance seeds or peeling bark, no undue excess of leaves. A good street tree stays healthy under urban conditions of pollution, their roots don’t lift the sidewalks, and they aren’t prone to breaking in storms. The thornless, seedless honey locust is an example (there are types that have both wicked thorns and large seed pods… those wouldn’t qualify as a good street tree!)

Leader, …branching… size of the tree

The leader is the main upright growth of the tree. Trees often have competing leaders, but this is usually not desirable. If a second leader starts to develop it should be removed. Branching gives the tree balance and trees can be pruned to encourage better habits, but a naturally balanced tree is preferred.

It seems logical that the larger a tree is when you plant it the larger it will be in a few years, but trees aren’t logical. They are, but in a different way. Trees with good roots that become well established are going to be the better and healthier growers, so when planting a tree the proportion above ground is not as important as those life supporting roots underground.

Don’t worry about planting whips (young trees with that skinny single leader), since it doesn’t take long for them to catch up nicely to that more expensive “show off” of a tall tree with little root… and then surpass them.

“Understory”, what is that?

In the forest, where trees congregate, the upper story trees are the tall ones that reach the sunlight first. The understory trees are happiest in the shelter and shade of those upper story trees. Dogwoods, Japanese maples, and Serviceberry trees are examples of understory trees. They are favored for gardens because they remain in bounds with a shorter profile.

How do you find out about your soils ?

Take a look at it, grab a handful of it. Does it clump together or is it loose and crumbly? does it have a hard time holding together? This will help you to know if it is clay, loam or sandy soil.

If you want to be accurate call your extension agent, see if you can procure some detailed information on your garden’s soils. Buy a soil test kit and run your own little experiment to find out the pH, and a few other important facts. If you are ambitious to know more or to provide your kids with a science experience.

This is not “pruning” as we think of it, but a type that we ought to “do right”. Most people just take a hedge trimmer to it, but an old hedge might benefit better from judicious hand trimming shown here. Old House Video: How to trim overgrown hedges

Get the best pruner you can afford and one that is kind to your hand.

This book is highly recommended.


There is nothing more helpful for guidance in pruning than to have a well-written guide with illustrations (unless it is hiring your own personal garden coach). Among the book that are important for a garden library shelf are those that tutor in such skills as pruning the right way.

These books will help:

Has this helped you to chose the trees to suit your needs and give your garden the best value? Then you are ready for the next step, planting your trees so they grow strong and healthy.

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.