12 Best Landscape Trees

How to Achieve Color for All Seasons

Star Magnolia, Magnolia stellata, is a very slow growing perennial shrub or small tree native to Japan with large showy white or pink flowers in early spring before the appearance of the leaves.
Star magnolia tree: a star of the spring landscape. Anna Yu/Photodisc/Getty Images

I am sometimes asked, "What are the best types of landscape trees for a yard?" In the present piece, I answer that question by picking 12 of the best for temperate regions. But the trees in the list below do not appear in a ranked order. Instead, the order is based on the seasonal interest they provide. I begin with those valued for their spring display; I end with autumn trees and those that offer visual interest in winter.

Indeed, the goal is not simply to have a collection of great specimens in the yard, but rather to have at least one specimen per season that will add pizzazz to your landscaping.

Voices of Spring

Spring is for flowers. We have the rest of the year to fuss over the foliage of a tree, the novelty of a tree's bark, or the pattern in which its branches grow. But when the snow recedes and life returns, I want color -- and lots of it. That is one reason why I forgive the glorious golden chain tree for being a one-hit wonder. Its critics point out that it is useless outside of that short period of time during the spring season in which it blooms. I would push back by saying that your favorite holiday, too comes only once a year, but does that mean you shouldn't celebrate it?

Nothing furnishes color quite like flowers, whether on annuals or perennials, on shrubs or on trees. Any well-planned yard will contain at least one flowering landscape tree of exceptional beauty.

Magnolia trees are among the showiest specimens. While star magnolias often bloom earlier, saucer magnolias provide a larger bloom.

You do not have to be a farmer to want to grow apple trees in your yard. It is about more than just the fruit: apple trees are beautiful bloomers in their own right.

The fruit is a bonus.

But you will want more than just flowering landscape trees that provide a floral extravaganza in spring. Fortunately, sometimes you get a "2 for 1" deal (or better) in landscaping. In this case, I mean versatile specimens that earn their keep during more than just one of the four seasonsDogwood trees offer such a deal: blooms for spring, colorful foliage for fall, berries to attract wild birds in winter, and an interesting branching pattern year-round.

Avoid the Summertime Blues With These Selections

Some of the Japanese maples, too, are versatile, but in a different way: they are great "autumn trees" not only in autumn, but also during the summer season. That is, they display the vibrant colors we associate with fall foliage when most other trees still bear green leaves.

Ginkgo trees are delightful in both summer and fall, due to the delicate and interesting shape of their leaves, whether they be green (summer) or golden (fall).

Bring Leaf Peepers to Your Landscape With These Autumn Picks

The Japanese maples may be precocious, but some of the maples native to North America or Europe are equally beautiful as autumn trees -- and they are larger (for example, sugar maples). Their greater size allows them to fulfill another task of landscape trees: providing shade in summer. The imposing dimensions of these plants also help accentuate their fall color. In this article I look at some types of maples that, even on a cloudy fall day, will light up the yard like giant torches.

But maples by no means have a monopoly on autumn splendor, which is why you should check out my full article, 10 Most Colorful Trees for Fall, to learn about other terrific choices.

Landscape Trees to Keep You Contented in Winter

We have addressed the role of landscape trees in providing visual interest in the yard for spring, summer and fall. But what about winter? When the colorful fall foliage is gone, do your specimens have anything left to offer? Yes, they do -- if you have selected them wisely. When Old Man Winter darkens your doorstep, it's time for the evergreen trees to shine. For instance, why don't you take your cue from the holiday season and plant those Christmas classics, blue spruce trees?

Also popular as evergreen trees is another kind of spruce, the dwarf Alberta spruce. You will often see them used in pairs to flank the entryway to a house for a formal look that strives for balance. Because dwarf Alberta spruce trees will remain relatively small for a number of years, people sometimes treat them (at least initially) as container plants.

Arborvitae does more than just look pretty year-round. This evergreen is widely planted to create "living wall" privacy fences to screen you from the prying eyes of nosy neighbors. If you are looking for something of an intermediate size, try 'North Pole' arborvitae.

Another tree that offers winter interest and is planted to form privacy screens is the 'Nellie R. Stevens' holly. This one is evergreen, too, but with a twist: it is considered a "broadleaf" evergreen.

But not all landscape trees planted for winter interest bear evergreen foliage. Some just have interesting branching patterns or an unusually pleasing bark. Birches are examples of landscape trees with the latter quality.