A nursery employee helping a woman shop for small trees
(Image credit: Akarawut Lohacharoenvanich)

Choosing trees for your garden can be fun, but choosing the right tree is a critical step in the process. Few acts bring more satisfaction than planting a tree. It’s an optimistic wager on the future. Digging the planting hole, installing the young tree, and watering and tending it bring a great sense of happiness and fulfillment. Wondering how to choose a tree? We’ll give you lots of tips to help make the experience a total success.

How to Choose Trees for Your Yard

Planting a tree sounds like such a simple project. But there are lots of different considerations that should be taken into account when choosing trees for your garden. These include size limitations, tree attributes, disease and pest aspects, and questions about invasiveness.

Consider Your Space Dimensions

It is clear that not every tree will be an appropriate size for every space. If you have a small cottage garden, a coastal redwood or even a sugar maple will be way too large to squeeze in. Before considering tree species, get out a tape measure and determine how much room the tree will have in every direction. Be sure to look skyward as well to determine whether electric wires can limit the height.

Consider Your Sun and Soil

Some trees grow best in a direct sun location, and most fruit trees require lots of sun to produce fruit. But trees that grow in the wild as understory trees will not be happy with too much sun, and prefer dappled sun or even partial shade. Evaluate the planting site with these thoughts in mind. While you’re out there, check out the soil too - is it sand, loam or clay? And consider the wind exposure. Selecting a tree that likes the conditions you can offer is half the battle.

Do The Trees Drop Fruit or Nuts?

If you have a large landscape, the debris a tree drops may not affect you. But if you are putting in one tree in a small, neat backyard, you’ll want to pick a tree that doesn’t drop too many fruit, nuts, or even seed pods. Some trees are just messy, like the Southern magnolia that sheds its large, leathery leaves and also faded blossoms. You may decide that the beauty of the tree is worth the clean-up, but you don’t want the falling debris to come as a surprise.

Look for Disease & Insect Resistant Varieties

Some regions are hotbeds for particular diseases or seem to attract insect pests, and you’ll want to figure this out early. If you find that several of your neighbors have lost trees to Dutch elm disease, choose a tree that is not an elm. Alternatively, seek out resistant varieties of the tree.

Avoid Invasive Species

Invasive species propagate easily and escape cultivation, moving into the neighbor’s yard or into the nearby wild space. This is bad for the local ecosystem! Planting invasive tree species should be avoided.

How to Choose a Tree That Is Healthy & High Quality

The easiest way to grow a healthy tree is to plant a healthy sapling. This is harder than you might think, but it is worth the work. Here are a few steps to take.

1. Buy from a Reliable Source

It's possible to find low-cost trees on the internet, but the best rule of thumb is to buy locally. The discounts are appealing, but buying from a local garden store means you get to see the plant before paying for it. The store will be able to provide information on the tree’s suitability for your location. Finally, buying locally means there are no extra shipping costs.

2. Assess the Shape and Form

You can learn a lot about the quality of the tree by a simple inspection. Look for a straight trunk, a balanced crown, and, depending on the current season, appropriate signs of new growth like new buds and leaves.

It’s best to select a tree with a strong, well-defined central leader. The branches should be evenly spaced and the crown should be symmetrical. Avoid trees with branches that rub or cross and those with flush cuts.

3. Inspect the Roots

Take a look at the root ball for even more information about a tree you are considering buying. Pick a tall root ball if you want the tree to form deep roots. If your soil is closer to clay than sand, pick a root ball that is wide and shallow.

4. Check Balled & Burlapped Root Balls

If the tree has been extracted from the soil and the rootball is wrapped in burlap for sale, this is called a balled and burlapped root ball. You won’t be able to inspect the roots but you can still determine if the root ball is big enough to support the tree. It should be about 10 or 12 times the diameter of the trunk, measured 6 inches (15 cm) above the trunk flare. This is the part of the base of the trunk that curves outward.

Also look for large roots escaping from the bottom of the burlapped root ball. Small roots aren’t a serious issue, but bigger ones are a bad sign.

5. Look for Damage and Disease

Tree quality is important. If you note broken branches, a split trunk, broken roots, or other forms of damage to the tree structure, it is probably not a good one to buy. Also inspect the tree for signs of disease or insect damage.

6. Get a Guarantee

Many reputable plant retailers offer a guarantee. Be sure you understand the terms before buying the tree. For example, some growers won’t guarantee a balled and burlapped tree if you remove the burlap to plant it. You can only make an informed decision if you know the terms of the contract.

Teo Spengler

Teo Spengler has been gardening for 30 years. She is a docent at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Her passion is trees, 250 of which she has planted on her land in France.