Selecting the Right Tree

With this month’s blog, I’ve decided to stray a bit from my usual philosophical approach and offer some solidly objective information.  Over the past couple of months, I have been asked the question that prompted me to write this entry.  With that, I invite you to read about …


Choosing the right tree for the right place is critical to avoiding long term problems. First,  clarify your basic objectives.  Then, seek out sound information about the trees you are considering. Choose your tree wisely and plan accordingly.

Here are some tips to get you on the right path:

  1. Most importantly, determine the ultimate size and shape that fits your planting site.  Some trees are upright, conical or spreading. A spreading tree along a property line may encroach into the neighbor’s yard. A conical shape tree may conflict with the overhead utility wires. Look for several mature species in your area for comparisons. When planting the young tree, be sure to allow enough space for it to reach its desire mature size and to avoid unnecessary pruning.
    Consider the mature size of your desired tree. Will it fit your planting location 20 years in the future?

    Knowing the specific tree form you need will help narrow your search for the ideal species.
    Knowing the specific tree form you need will help narrow your search for the ideal species.  This artist has drawn eight forms.  I usually describe a tree’s natural form as upright, spreading, or conical, which often changes with age and size.   Although form may be manipulated through pruning, a tree always tries to return to it’s natural characteristics and achieve its ultimate size.  Thus regular pruning will be required to manage it in an altered condition. (Palms are the exception and will die if the top is removed).
  2. Decide whether you desire an evergreen or deciduous tree (loses its leaves in the winter). Choosing to plant a deciduous tree with its mature canopy near the house, will allow for winter sun and summer shade at the selected site and can provide improved climate control for your home. Note where the sun moves across your property at different times of the year.

    Deciduous trees allow the penetration of sunlight in the winter, but offer shade in the summer.
  3. What are the water needs of this tree? Is it compatible with other landscape features within its eventual root zone?  (e.g.: native oaks and some other species do not like year round irrigation.)
    A Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) on a wide expanse of lawn is a red flag.
    A Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) on a wide expanse of lawn is a red flag due to the likelihood of overwatering. This ancient tree is in decline from oak root fungus.
    A closer look shows decay and disease
    A closer look shows oozing from infection and decay in the base.

    Lawn right up against this oak- that generally requires no summer water- is incompatible
    The irrigated turf up to the base of the tree initiated death to many of the large structural roots. These smaller diameter roots are actually fairly large for adventitious roots indicating the problem has been going on for many years. Adventitious roots can develop from the base of a tree as larger structural roots decline.
  4. Consider leaf color, texture, shape, flowering and fruiting habit of the desired tree.  All trees shed, however some species are messier than others.  Leaf litter can provide needed mulch for your garden or can become a high maintenance nuisance depending on the situation. Sunset Western Garden Book can be a good resource for some of this information.

    If fall color is what you’re after, a deciduous tree that is size and climate appropriate for your location is the starting point. Note that there may be several varieties of your desired species that have different growth habits and show different fall colors.
  5. The majority of most root systems are in the upper 18 inches of soil. Surface roots can be a problem between neighbors or in your own landscape. Ask a qualified professional for information on the rooting habit of your selection. Will the growing roots crack or lift your paving or hardscape materials? Root barriers installed during planting can often reduce problems.

    Look for all the possible danger signs of a tree clearly in the wrong location.
    Limiting conditions that restrict root growth and canopy growth can result in extensive damage to the surrounding infrastructure. Root pruning may be required to repair the damage to the road, but can significantly impact the tree’s stability.
  6. Are there any common pests, diseases or structural weaknesses of this tree species?  Certain species are highly susceptible to annual leaf blight or defoliating pests.  These species generally look sick throughout the year. Others trees have common structural weaknesses that frequently result in branch splitting. On the plus side, some varieties of a tree species are developed without the negative characteristics of the tree you desire, such as fruitless varieties, e.g., olive and plum.
    Prunus cerisifera (purple leafed or ornamental plum) adds color to any landscape
    Although this species is not one of my favorites, Prunus cerisifera (purple leafed or ornamental plum) adds color to any landscape.

    Prunus cerisifera (purple leafed or ornamental plum)  puts on a big show of flowers come springtime.
    Come springtime, Prunus cerisifera (purple leafed or ornamental plum) puts on a big show of flowers. Remember, the flower show is short-lived, maybe two weeks.
  7. Have you observed unusually small or discolored leaves on plants in the chosen site? Soil problems often damage or restrict the growth of trees. A field inspection or a soil sample collected by a qualified professional and analyzed at a laboratory may reveal correctable or limiting conditions that can guide you towards a better tree selection.
  8. Do your homework; ask questions. Look for tree species in your area that fit your needs and appear to be thriving. Take photos and ask a nursery or tree professional for proper identification. Educate yourself and avoid problems for yourself and your neighbors.

For a link to a printable version of this article, click here.
For a link to a list of some of my favorite trees, click here.



  1. Thank you, Bill. That was a very good educational article on your blog.
    I’m going to send you a separate email regarding an installation at my condo.
    Polly Clement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s