How to Choose a Tree

A surprising number of people walk into our retail store and ask, “Do you sell trees?” or “Do you have any shade trees?” or “Do you have any ornamental trees?” We all smile and say yes; after all, trees are kind of our thing, and we're happy to help you choose a tree.

Understandably, many people don't know where to begin! This article is meant to help you think critically about the right questions when choosing a tree.

#1 Which tree is best for the specific site I have in mind?

This is perhaps the most important question. If you plant a tree in the wrong location, it will struggle no matter how much after-care you provide. You could water it, feed it, protect it, but it still wouldn't thrive, and you will not feel joy when you look at it. Ask yourself these basic questions:

How many hours of sun does my site get?
  • Full Sun is between six to eight hours of direct sunlight
  • Part shade or part sun (used interchangeably) means four to six hours of exposure
  • Full shade is less than four hours of sun.

You may also have heard of the term “dappled sun” which is sunlight that is filtered through the branches and leaves of other trees.

To determine how much sunlight an area receives, spend some time observing that spot for a few days between May and July when other trees have their leaves. Jot down whether or not that area is receiving direct sunlight each hour of the day and do this for a few days to find an average.

Is my soil wet or dry?

While some trees are tolerant of many soil types, knowing what soil you have can make all the difference for trees that thrive in specific soil types. Some trees, like River Birch, enjoy wet soil. Hackberry enjoys dry soil. Some trees will tolerate either, such as Bur Oak. Does your location tend to flood in the spring? Is it rather dry in the summer? Walk outside right now and stick your finger in the dirt about 2 inches. Is it wet, just moist, or dry? How long ago did it rain? Arming yourself with even this small amount of information will help you choose a tree. Some trees can live in sandy soils, others prefer clay, others fall somewhere in between. Thankfully, many trees can acclimate to multiple soil types.

How much space do I have?

Anticipating your tree's mature width (spread) and height helps you plan for obstructions. Are there any property lines, houses, sheds, or driveways? Trees are often not given enough room to grow to their mature size which may mean the tree has to be pruned flat on one side. If it gets to a certain height, will it hit power lines? There is no sadder sight than a tree that has grown to engulf power lines and had been cut into the dreaded “V.” Plan ahead. The young tree you buy today will grow (and grow) over time! Knowing the amount of space you have to work with is essential. Always give a tree the space it will need at maturity.

Is my site near a water source?

Many people don't realize their new trees will need watering during the first year to establish their roots. Is there a hose nearby? A larger tree will need at least 20 or more gallons of water every week. This means planning to water your plants.

What about the neighborhood?

Take a walk around the neighborhood and look at the trees planted nearby.

You may begin to notice a pattern in your neighborhood’s landscaping, or even notice that the same trees are planted in yard after yard. When choosing trees we all have our own agenda, be it functionality (shade, screening) or aesthetics (fall color, flower). Make sure diversity is on your agenda! Diversity is literally the spice of life, and vital to the ecological health and fitness of any given area. If this is not what motivates you then it is also true that planting too much of the same species can also have great financial repercussions.

Those who have had to replace trees due to Emerald Ash Borer understand this. A single insect species wiped out a very popular, admittedly overplanted landscaping tree, leaving many homeowners to foot the bill for these trees’ removal and replacement. A more diverse set of trees planted in the past would have resulted in the need to replace only one, or a few, rather than a whole yard’s worth (or entire neighborhoods). It is easy to get tunnel vision and only pay mind to what is within the boundaries of your property. Purchasing a new tree is not only an opportunity to add some pizzazz or shade to your yard but to add diversity to an area that is most likely already in great need.

These are the first questions we ask customers when helping them choose a tree starting from scratch. The rest is a matter of preference!

#2 What characteristics do I value in a tree?

A man once came in and asked, “What is the perfect tree?” We responded with, “What is the perfect dog?” He immediately answered, “Golden Retriever!” The point is it depends on what you like! Another person may have preferred a Maltese or a Saint Bernard. People get trees (and dogs!) for a multitude of reasons.

The following are questions that might help you understand what you like in a tree. Some trees can satisfy many of these preferences. Other trees may only tick a few boxes but they tick those boxes so well that they compensate for not being all the things. Also, if any one tree does not work you can always get more trees! But maybe that’s just me.

What is this tree for?

Do you want your tree to provide a living privacy screen between you and a road? Do you want to block a nosy neighbor or shield your property from their deck or picture window? Then maybe you are looking for evergreens as they provide screening year-round. Eastern Redcedar and Star Power™ Juniper are great choices. However, we also don't always solve screening problems with evergreens. Trees and shrubs offer great screening.

Do you want a WOW! Tree?

This is a tree that makes a statement. People sometimes call these trees ornamental trees although this isn't technically a group of trees. If you are looking for a tree that flowers then Eastern Redbud, Japanese Tree Lilac, Tuliptree, and Northern Catalpa are beautiful!

Do you prioritize fall color?

Maples and Serviceberries come in many cultivars bred specifically for their fall color and Linden and Aspen are just as beautiful!

Do you like trees with unique foliage?

Korean Maple has an interesting growth habit, pretty leaves, and fantastic fall color. I love trees with large leaves, like Northern Catalpa, Cucumber Magnolia, or our native Basswood, as they remind me of tropical places. Showy Mountainash has interesting compound leaves, flowers, and red/orange berries! Early Glow Buckeye has flowers with compound leaves that display wonderful fall colors.

Many people also come in looking for shade trees. This is also not an official category of trees as most trees provide shade. Some shade is dappled, think Little Leaf Linden, Quaking Aspen, or Ginkgo. Other trees, like Maples, can provide dense shade. I assume that when people imagine a ‘shade tree’ they think of a relaxing afternoon under a tree with a blanket and a picnic basket. A book perhaps. Bur Oak, Basswood, Buckeye, Hackberry, Hickory, Honeylocust, the list goes on! The fact is, as long as there is enough clearance to sit underneath and the canopy is wide enough to give some coverage, the tree is a shade tree!

Northern Catalpa has unique foliage and flowers.

Mystic Ruby Buckeye has unique foliage, flower, and fall color.

Do you want to naturalize your yard for wildlife?

Having evolved side by side, native living organisms from bacteria to plants to mammals have developed irreplaceable relationships. These relationships are disrupted and displaced by the introduction of exotics. Providing naturalized areas for wildlife help provide a space where native creatures can find resources (food and shelter) that are tailor-made, over thousands of years, for their needs.

Here are some recommended readings on the benefits of planting natives:

Oaks are hosts for living organisms throughout the food chain from bacteria to fungi to insects to birds and mammals. The sheer number of species that oaks provide food and shelter to blows most other trees out of the water. Black Cherries are a host plant for hundreds of butterflies and moths and provide food to dozens of bird species. Serviceberries provide food and shelter for mammals and birds. Basswood is literally called the Beetree for the bees it attracts with its nutritious nectar. There are many native options. Choose a variety of trees, shrubs, and perennials to provide diversity and create opportunities for as many species as possible. All the plant profiles on our website give information on the plant’s wildlife value. There are many options!

What is my desired maintenance level?

Many homeowners don’t want a ‘messy’ plant. More maintenance requires more time, and many people have a “set it and forget it” approach to their landscaping. Are you this person? That’s fine! Knowing what you want, or don’t want, is half the battle! That said, we are talking about nature which is in many ways imperfect when it comes to complying with our desire to keep things nice and tidy. There are factors that we can consider while choosing a tree that will help.

First, think back to the location. Some trees flower and drop petals. Some trees rain nectar or pollen. Others may drop pods or nuts. A tree dropping nuts or raining nectar in the middle of a large yard is one thing, but it's quite another when nuts and nectar fall on your driveway or pathway to the front door. It's important to accept that all trees will make some mess. Making practical decisions when choosing a tree and its location will help you and those who come after you. In short, proper placement will prevent you from performing more maintenance than otherwise necessary.

Speaking of practicality, people often have their lawnmowers on their mind when they come in for a tree. “Will I be able to ride my mower under this tree?” is a question that we get often. If this concerns you, it's a good idea to consider a tree’s clearance, this is the space between the ground and the lowest branches. Some trees naturally have a lower clearance (i.e. Musclewood). Other trees have a higher clearance, or the lowest branches can easily be trimmed to accommodate yardwork. And in some cases, the tree may outgrow a clearance.

Also, “Does this tree drop fruit/nuts that will mess with my mower?” Shagbark Hickory and Black Walnut are examples of trees that have nuts sizeable enough to do some damage to a mower.

#3 A Note on Realistic Expectations.

We want you to enjoy looking at your tree for years to come. To do this, you need to accept both the environmental parameters that your site provides and the trees that thrive in those conditions. You may love palm trees, but you live in Wisconsin and that's just not gonna work. Sometimes the tree that you had your eye on just won't thrive in your yard. That means it's not the right choice now. Keep an open mind. It's important to balance expectations while keeping your preferences in mind.

#4 You have read this article and have used our online resources and have found your tree. What now?

Plants continue to grow in popularity, and inventory is constantly changing.

  • Start with our Online Availability.
  • Contact us the plant you are looking for or would like to inquire about a size that is not listed. We can check our database for more information.