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What is the Best Tree?

The amount of information about trees can be daunting for someone who simply wants to plant and enjoy a tree. Whether in your front yard or in an enormous civil project, you need simple answers, and mistakes can be costly!

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Trees are living things that have a tremendous impact where they are planted. For one thing, they are huge! Large shade trees and pines can easily reach 60 feet tall, and their root systems are just as extensive underground as their leafy canopy is above ground.

You want to choose wisely for something so large – something that will be around for possibly 100 years or more, but you probably are not interested in an education in botany, scientific studies of photosynthesis, or genetic cloning of endangered species. This site will provide plain answers and filter through the mass of knowledge available to give you the essential information you need to know how to make enlightened decisions on when, where, and what to plant to achieve successful and satisfying results in your efforts to green the landscape.

Most designers don't think much about how trees will affect sidewalks or how they might keep you raking and sweeping and pruning several months each year. They are more often interested in complying with minimum tree-planting numbers to meet an ordinance requirement or trying to provide a quick vertical aesthetic effect in the landscape. Some designers might also want to sell you their design, so they will choose a tree that has flower color that shows up nicely on computer visualizations. But is that the best tree for your site? Trees don’t flower all year long. Other designers might want to unload inventory from their tree farm, so they will recommend what needs to be sold. This site is not trying to sell you a design or comply with an ordinance or liquidate plant material, so I can give you objective information about what tree choice is best for your situation.

So, let’s get started!  Let me know your favorite tree, and what makes it your top pick. Read more about trees in the new Advanced Guide to Trees eBook, based on years of experience working with the pros, evaluation thousands of landscape projects using trees.

Why Do Trees Fall?

Dangerous Trees

why do trees fall, hazard trees, dangerous treesTrees fall because their roots cannot hold them upright. If the roots are starved for space, water, air, and nutrients, you will see signs of weakness above ground (like the growth of Resurrection Fern on the main branches shown in the image). If the main feeder roots of a tree are damaged by construction, a tree will fall. If the tree, with its enormous weight and mass, is leaning at an angle which makes it impossible for the roots to hold their ground, the tree will eventually fall. If a tree is badly diseased or infested above ground, the roots will be affected also. If a vehicle drives over the soil above tree roots a couple of times, a tree will eventually fall. Healthy roots are the key to safe trees.

Tree Wells Don't Work

Save the Trees That Are Save-able

tree wells don't workTree wells were used many years ago to attempt to save trees within fill areas of construction projects. They were pretty – usually stone or rock circular structures. Most only extended a few feet from the central trunk, so the roots within the drip line were covered with new soil. None of them saved any trees, so they discontinued using them. I can’t recall seeing a single tree wells constructed at the drip line of a tree—ever. It would be too expensive to create a wall that diameter. Window wells work. Tree wells don’t work.

If the grade will change more than 3 to 6 inches around a tree root zone, then the tree will not survive. Go ahead and remove the tree and replant something nice to replace it. 

Are You Watering Your Trees?

Drought Can Take Them Down

watering treesTrees may not show signs of imminent death when lacking water. It takes a couple of years for the full effects of drought to show. You may see the leaves at tips of random limbs go brown the first year. Don’t ignore this! Trees need ten gallons of water per caliper inch of trunk diameter, according to Peter MacDonagh at Deep Root Green Infrastructure. Trees are slow to complain, but they need your help when the ground is parched.

Kwanzan Cherry

Powder Puffs can Grow on Trees!

Kwanzan Cherry bloomNew foliage on this formal beauty is bronze. It blooms the same time as the Washington D.C. Tidal Basin Yoshino’s, so it is often more quietly appreciated on grand estates and suburban back yards. ‘Kwansan’ is an assumed name. Its true identity is ‘Sekiyama’, but it cannot shake the ‘Kwansan’ label. No matter. This is a tree that grows copious amounts of soft pink, drooping, powder puffs. Forget the cherries. This is all ornamental. It would make the perfect bridal bouquet, albeit short-lived.

Hardiness ranges from 5 to 8, which means you can grow this tree in all but the most northern states. As with all fruit trees, it tends to have plenty of disease and pest issues, but compared to other cherries, it is pretty resilient, maturing into a stiff, rounded shape with time. Keeping the soil pH on the neutral side may help it live longer. It tops out at twenty-five feet tall, twenty-five feet wide, and twenty-five years.

Great Gift Idea—A Small Flowering Tree

Late Fall and Early Winter are the Best Times to Gift Trees

avondale redbud tree, small flowering trees

Are you struggling with an idea for a holiday gift? How about one that will provide years and years of benefit? Your friends will remember you every spring if you give them the gift of a small, flowering tree. Try to find one that is growing in a seven-gallon or smaller container. You don’t want to give them a hernia along with your present!

You can add planting instructions along with your best wishes. Remind the recipient of the mature size of your gift, and caution them to allow plenty of room for it to grow. You can attach a photograph and simple instructions along with the bow. You might even include a sturdy spade to complete the gift. 

Here are some exceptional little trees that can beautify a residential yard—my favorites. Talk to your nursery person to discover which would do well in your area.

About Trees

professional tree advice, tree expertI’m a landscape architect, and have been working on tree-related projects all my life. My background has a strong emphasis on horticulture, and I was on the Georgia State Master Gardener board for several years as well as the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Technical Advisory Committee for the new Erosion Control Manual.

I started my career designing large-scale industrial and commercial landscape and irrigation projects, did years of design/build work, and spent the last decade plus reviewing hundreds of ornamental landscape design and streetscape proposals each year for a state department of transportation. I also helped establish a statewide vegetation management tree removal permit program and created a landscape grant funding program to spend the revenue from the permits, to mitigate for the lost trees.

The reward of all that experience was a true understanding of the value trees bring to living. One of my favorite movie scenes of all time was seeing the “Ents” in Lord of the Rings; the Two Towers, animated into speech and action. There really is a spirit inhabiting these wonderful plants. They deserve respect and careful landscape design consideration.

What do I want to tell you about trees?

• Trees are so big they can be dangerous. They can stop a car or fall on a house. Safety is the most important consideration when choosing a tree.

• They can sometimes live longer than we do! It all depends on how well they are planted.

• A landscape designer can easily stamp a long row of trees onto a plan, but a great landscape designer determines the right tree for the right place. Choosing the best location for a tree is simple.

The devil is in the details, though!

I want to share as much as I can with you about what I’ve learned over the years, but you can find detailed information in my Advanced Guide to Trees eBook. I would love to hear your comments and about your tree stories and experiences, too.

Advanced Guide to Trees








You might also enjoy the Advanced Guide to Landscape Grants eBook, full of practical tips for applying for funding and making your beautification project a success.

Advanced Guide to Landscape Grants








Tree Roots

The Drip Line

tree roots, the drip zone, hazard trees

You will see the term “drip line” used a lot in the tree world. Imagine the canopy of a shade tree as an umbrella. A heavy rain hits an umbrella and runs to the edge of the umbrella and drips off the perimeter. The drip line for a tree is the area under the umbrella of leaves that stays dry. The drip line is your best guess for where feeder roots for the tree will be located, and it is an essential boundary for determining if a tree will survive when encroachment with vehicles or construction disturbs a tree.

Here’s a newly fallen tree, on its side, showing the limited depth of most feeder roots. You can see from the photo how generous you need to be with width to provide room for a healthy tree to grow. Another thing illustrated here is how a tree will send out some larger roots toward a source of water or nutrients. These provide a limited number of straps that hold the tree stable during storms.

Some experts say a tree can handle 20-30% damage to the roots within the drip line and survive, but that is extremely optimistic. Some trees are particularly sensitive to root damage and can’t stand 5% disturbance – Sweetgums and Dogwoods die quickly with any root damage. Try to avoid any damage within the drip line when digging near trees. If damage is unavoidable, then anything over 10% of the area within the drip line warrants complete tree removal, unless the tree is something really special. You should remove insignificant trees that are considerably damaged during construction to avoid having to remove them later when they becomes a hazard trees and you risk damaging surrounding plants and structures. A historic tree— however you might define that— a magnificent specimen tree, or a tree that has special significance, may be worth attempting to save when the damage reaches 20 – 30%. More than that is futile. Have a memorial service for the tree, sell the wood to make souvenirs, and replant more trees somewhere else.

You can read more about trees and tree ordinances in The Advanced Guide to Trees 

The Advanced Guide to Trees; Choose Trees like a Professional.

Trash Trees

Bargains that Lose Value with Time

trash trees, cheap trees, silver maple

My childhood home was planted extensively with Water Maples. They were a mess, constantly dropping broken limbs. In the fall their leaves turned a non-memorable brown before they fell. I did have more than one memorable experience related to them, though. I watched them toppled or snapped by storms. Seeing sixty-foot trees collapse within just a few feet from my window and come crashing down on other trees is a sight which stays with you for life. What I saw growing up taught me to never, ever plant a trash tree.

A trash tree is typically sold by mail-order as a quick-and-dirty solution for a landscape. The catalog depictions of trash trees boast they grow anywhere, are disease resistant, are fast growing, are very adaptable, and provide dense shade in just a few years.  It sounds great, doesn’t it? The descriptive phrases are true, and I have learned from experience to be suspicious about any tree described in those terms. There are other characteristics omitted from the catalogs—weak wooded, messy, invasive, dangerous in storms, and ugly most of the year. Thrash trees are very easy to propagate cheaply, so they can be sold at bargain prices to homeowners that think a shade tree is a shade tree is a shade tree. Trees sold in the back of a magazine about raising chickens or racing cars are usually bargains which lose value with time.

Sixty-foot shade trees for only a dollar-fifty entice homeowners to purchase Paulownia, Willow, Lombardy Poplar, Popcorn tree, Bradford Pear, Mimosa, Silver Maple, Water Maple, Black Locust, Mulberry, and Honeylocust trees. Blinded by the cheap deal, they purchase trash trees decade after decade. Trash trees are problems waiting to grow larger each year. The property owner in the photo above was lucky. The trash tree in the front yard, placed front-and-center in the middle of the lawn, has begun to self-destruct before becoming huge and unmanageable. The ten-or-so Water Maples planted at my childhood home probably cost less than ten dollars, but they did thousands of dollars in damage over the long term.