Before You Plant - What Trees and Shrubs Are the Best for Your Yard?

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Trees and shrubs can evoke many memories and emotions. Whether you remember the joy of picking nectarines, the heady aroma of blooming lilacs, or a swing in a majestic oak, trees and shrubs affect us all. With careful consideration, you can choose the right trees and shrubs for your location and avoid frustrations and financial losses.

Find Your USDA Hardiness Zone

Your first concern should be the climate you live in. The USDA has devised a map that breaks the country into eleven zones based on the average coolest temperature. Each tree and shrub will have a range of zones that it will flourish in. By picking ones that are suited for your area, you can avoid freezing a tender plant or burning one that prefers cool temperatures.

Examine Your Soil

You should test your soil to see what the pH is and the nutrient level. Buy simple test kits at most nurseries and home improvement stores, or obtain a more detailed test for a nominal fee through your county extension office. pH can be changed (to a degree) as needed, and nutrients added, using amendments and fertilizers

The soil texture is also important. There are three types – sand, silt, and clay. Water-loving trees and shrubs may have trouble in sand since water is not retained well. On the other hand, clay can kill trees or shrubs that require excellent drainage. Choose plants that thrive in your type.

Assess the Growing Conditions

The soil isn't the only part you have to worry about. You should assess the environment the tree will be living in. Other factors that may affect your choices for trees and shrubs include:

  • How much light will they get?
  • Is your land flat or hilly?
  • Are there harsh winds?
  • Does the area tend to stay dry, moist, or wet?
  • Is the air and/or soil salty?

Calculate How Much Space You Have

You must consider the space you have available. Be sure to find out the size of trees or shrubs at maturity, instead of basing your purchase on the size of the small ones you see at the nursery.

Find out the shape that a tree or shrub will take – some may be tall and narrow, while others are short and wide. The wider it is, the more shade it will provide. You don't want to block too much light from your other plants.

Don't plant trees or large shrubs too close to your house, or you may find yourself faced with problems like constant pruning, plumbing problems, and structural damage.

Keep Your Design in Mind

What color blossoms or leaves would you like? What size leaf would you like?

There are deciduous trees and shrubs that lose their leaves each fall but can provide some stunning autumn colors. There are also evergreens which do not lose their leaves and will provide color year-round.

Do you want to attract butterflies, birds, bees, and other wildlife? Are you looking for fruit, shade, a focal point, or something else? These are all some of the concerns when thinking about the aesthetics of a tree or shrub.

Find out the Growing Habits

Like people, trees and shrubs have good and bad habits. Some habits to consider:

  • Are you willing to rake leaves or pick up fallen fruit?
  • Drops a lot of sap, causing damage to vehicles and buildings?
  • Do the branches break easily?
  • Does it need lots of pruning?
  • Does it produce a lot of suckers that will pop up all over?
  • Will it provide shade or fruit as soon as you would like?
  • Does it have thorns?
  • Picking a Healthy Tree

Pick a Healthy Specimen

Choosing a healthy plant starts with shopping at reputable nurseries and garden centers. Look for vibrant plants and knowledgeable staff.

Pick trees with evenly spaced branches and a strong, straight trunk. There should only be one central leader for most trees. Shrubs should have a symmetrical form with no gaping spaces. There should be no broken branches on either, which can lead to diseases and insect damage.

Foliage should not be wilting or damaged. The colors should be season-appropriate. The roots should not be pot-bound if in containers. Make sure there is no evidence of diseases or insects.