Type, size, color, fruit—and function—are the main considerations when choosing trees for your garden.
Whether it’s a massive oak in the front yard or a dwarf pine in a pot on the patio, trees play a prominent role in any landscape. They provide shade and function as anchors for surrounding plants. They can also be strong focal points, with striking flowers, foliage, and bark. They can hide a less-than-pleasant view, dampen outside noise, and provide a haven for wildlife. Even the smallest garden benefits from having at least one tree.
Choosing a tree begins with deciding where the tree will go and what sun and water conditions it will encounter. In addition, you will also want to consider how fast growing you want the tree to be, if you want it to have greenery year-round, flowers, or fall color, or be fruit-bearing.
Trees are divided into two broad categories. Deciduous trees are those that lose their leaves in winter. They’re a great choice if you want shade in summer and warmth in winter. Evergreen trees are, as the term implies, green year-round.
Trees can be further divided into two subcategories. Broad-leafed evergreens have thick leaves, such as those found on holly (Ilex) and Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora). Conifers, such as pines, firs, and spruces, have needlelike leaves.
Another option is fruit trees. These combine flowers and oftentimes colorful foliage with the advantage of a crop. Look for varieties that are suited to your climate, and be sure to check for any pollination requirements.
Taking the tree’s ultimate size into consideration before purchasing it is essential. If you have a small space, a bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) will overwhelm the rest of the garden. On the other hand, if you have plenty of room, small trees may be lost in the background.
Width is another consideration. Trees such as Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) take up very little horizontal space even though they grow quite tall; others, such as the atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica), can reach 75 feet tall and 100 feet wide.
If your only available space is a patio or very small garden, there are still trees that will fit, such as the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) or flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). Check the size range for the exact species or variety you’re buying; it can vary widely even within a single genus.
Trees ablaze with red and yellow leaves are what most people think of when they think of colorful trees. And it’s true that especially trees like maples and oaks provide an amazing show of fall color year after year. But you can also find trees with colorful flowers throughout the year, as well as fruits and berries. And trees such as river birch (Betula nigra) are probably best known for their interestingly colored bark.