Trees: Finding the Right One

By+Bernie Williamson


According to the National League of Cities, Oak, Pine, Maple, and Cedar are among the most popular street names in the United States – and with good reason!  Trees are an important part of the American landscape.  

But how do you choose “the right” tree?  After all, you might just be living with the consequences of your decision for decades!  The key, according to Darren Williamson, Landscape Architect and owner of North Star Landscape Design & Installation, is to recognize that “right” has less to do with the trees -- than it does with you.

Finding what works simply involves identifying your needs and your wants and tying them to the trees that meet those requirements.  The good news is, there are professionals who can help you do that; AND better yet, the new varieties emerging each year are making it possible for you to have almost anything you want – to at least some degree.  

For example, if you have a large yard and you’re looking for a premier shade tree, you can hardly go wrong with Maples.  From Sugar, Rubrum (Red) and Norway Maples, you can count on the kind of leaf density that makes them a favorite shade tree; AND outstanding fall color that makes them popular among Midwestern landscapes.

If space is limited, shorter “columnar” varieties, such as the Hedge Maple, only grow to a height of about 30’, and offer the same dense foliage and beautiful fall color.

And if you want a Maple, but you’re not planning to stay in your home for the next 20+ years, you might want to consider the Autumn Blaze Maple. The Autumn Blaze is a cross between a Rubrum Maple and the (much less-desirable) Silver Maple – which is notorious for surface root problems, excessive seed drop, branches that tend to droop, and rather drab fall color.  Fortunately, the Autumn Blaze received the best characteristics of each – fast growth and vibrant scarlet fall color.

The truth is, there are countless shade trees from which to choose, and new varieties are emerging every year.  But it’s also interesting to consider that almost any tree provides some degree of shade.  So depending on the area, even ornamentals, known for the color, texture, and visual appeal they add to the landscape, can provide just the right amount of shade – at a breakfast room window or along a patio sitting area, for example, where a traditional “shade tree” could be inappropriate.  

The blend of shade and ornamental beauty can also be precisely tailored to meet your aesthetic interests. Hornbeams, for example, are extremely dense and offer good shade, while also being impeccably symmetrical.  Ornamental Pears (Aristocrat, Bradford) offer symmetry, although to a lesser degree, as well as outstanding glossy foliage, spring flowers, and beautiful fall color.  And Dogwoods and Redbuds have “free-form” canopies that offer dappled shade and a variety of colors and textures that add perfect accents when planted close to your home.  

Dogwoods and Redbuds – which grow well under the shade of other trees – are also good examples of ornamentals that can be brilliantly included in landscape “screens”.

According to Williamson, Evergreens are perhaps the best trees for screening because of their year-round functionality, but they can be visually “flat”.  “Adding ornamentals to the Evergreen backdrop makes your view more appealing.”

Across small areas, Evergreens such as Arborvitaes, planted closely together, can provide dense, virtually opaque screens; while Spruces and Pines offer varying degrees of opacity, and are better choices when large areas are involved.  Williamson warns against the use of Blue Spruces as screens, however, because their colors can actually range from green to blue-gray; and since uniformity is generally preferred, Blue Spruces may not serve you well.

Finally, for those concerned about the proper care of a variety of trees across the landscape, Williamson explains that tree care need not be a huge undertaking.  As a general rule, trees can and do thrive with little care.  Pruning is not generally required, and fertilization may not be necessary if your soil has adequate nutrients.  Even if fertilizer is required, tree stakes are a wonderful way to complete the task.  Stakes provide a slow-release of nutrients, so they work well over time, and they work well for almost all trees.  Proper placement of the stakes along the tree’s “drip-line” (the edge of the canopy where rainwater drips from the tree) is about as tricky as it gets.

According to Williamson, finding “the right” tree really does depend on what’s right for you. Fortunately, we’re living at a time when our interest in beautifying our homes corresponds with the abilities of nurserymen and arborists to breed new varieties that help us do exactly that.  So finding the right tree will be even easier tomorrow.

For information on tree selection, care and maintenance, or to address all of your landscaping needs, contact North Star Landscape Design & Installation at 269-445-9100, toll-free at 866-445-9100, or visit them on the web at