Right Tree, Right Place?

What do you think is the most important decision we can make when planning our landscape? Where we ask our plants to live can be the difference between a peaceful coexistence and a life of confrontation with our plant choices. In the past, we have looked at plant selection and placement in the following order: AESTHETICS > SIZE > MAINTENANCE > ENVIRONMENT.

This method of planting prioritizes our needs and desires without regard for the plant’s genetic requirements. In other words, we often change our planting environment to match plant choice, when in reality the opposite should occur… Try to choose plant species as dictated by the environment in which they must grow. It would look something like this: ENVIRONMENT > SIZE > MAINTENANCE > AESTHETICS.

Make sense??? To clarify we’ll look at our four categories closely. Trial and error has proven this method reduces plant loss, poor health and leads to the myriad blessings we share with an adult garden.


What is your soil makeup? Is it native or interrupted? How about water table, debris, contaminants, pH, salinity, compaction, aeration, organic matter and your soil’s ability to hold nutrients and moisture?

What are your sunlight requirements? Sun, shade, intensity and duration. Remember things may grow in both shade and bright sun, but different environments may cause your plants to grow with a different look. For example, evergreens become “leggy” when grown in shade.

In what temperature zone will you be planting? What is the plant’s heat/cold tolerance/hardiness? Are there separate macro/microclimates to consider?

What about air movement and wind velocity? Think about your broadleaved evergreens on windy knolls during cold winter days.

Have you considered topography? Elevation and slope may have a great deal to do with where runoff occurs or where excess water remains.

What is the existing vegetation? Can that be a guide to your planting? Will there be root competition or allelopathy; the toxic affect one species can have on another while sharing the same root zone. Can you think of a species where this may occur?

Now take a look at the above environmental considerations. How reasonable would it be to change any of these situations? These environmental factors are constant and will more that likely remain the same, with some exception. So why fret over things we cannot control when we can make good decisions about each and every plant we install. The choice is ours to do the right thing. With forethought, planning and education, we can make the difference. That too is a choice! And… here’s an interesting physiological point. In general, those plants that like wet areas will usually do well in a dry site, but to reverse that situation is taboo.

Let’s look at SIZE.

How big the plant is when you install it is almost meaningless! Ask yourself, “How big will this plant be in 10-20 years”? Let the plant’s future be your guide. As Arborist and ASCA Consultant, Edward Milhous always says, “If you are pruning your plant out of your way every year, you have the wrong plant”. Plant size below and above ground as well as height and spread is important now and into the future. I often hear, “I can’t believe how large my plants have become”!

What is the plant’s growth rate, and how will environmental considerations affect its growth?

How much root space is there between curb and sidewalk? How close to the foundation do you really want to be, and how big is that Nellie Stevens holly going to get? We can’t move the house but we can adjust our plant selection and location.

Plants do one thing better that any other organism on our planet, they get BIGGER every year.


How transplantable is you plant?

Are there seasonal requirements for planting and maintenance?

Site preparation? 

How difficult will it be to mow the surrounding area? Should I use grass, ground cover or mulch? What is best for the plant, and what is easiest for me?

Pest management? By installing plants better suited for the site fewer insect and disease issues may arise.

How often will this plant have to be pruned or forced into position?

Is water available? 

Is your plant messy; is the fruit offensive, i.e. female ginkgo?

Will your tree fall apart? Should we chat about Bradford pears?

To this date I have not found the “maintenance free garden” within the urban forest. Plants need to be tended, some less than others. Space is an issue as are property laws and human courtesies. Plants do not respect boundaries but will react to site situations. We again have a say in whether those reactions are positive or negative… which brings us to the all important issue of…


Of course, I must leave this one completely up to you. Only you can make the right choice for yourself which makes that beautiful garden genuinely your creation. Gardeners are a direct manifestation of their plants as are the plants, their creator. Gardens are, in my opinion, priceless. They are an example of one’s right and privilege to choose, which is one of our greatest gifts. Gardens are a place to visit and to live. (When you think about it, try to count the number of living organisms that take up housekeeping within the confines of your gardens). They are a place in which we rest and refuel, where we grow and repair. Gardens are exquisitely ethereal and with them come our natural connections with birds, insects and the places we consider wild and free. We are alone and with everything in our gardens. I need only to think of my garden in order to smile or cry and when I go for a visit it welcomes me with gates open wide. I am always welcome, and it evokes my fondest memories of treasured gardens and those with whom I have shared them. 

From a physiological sense we need to think about the well being of plants and their placement. It is important as we place them now and for the future and watch them grow into adulthood. We need plants and we need our gardens. By making excellent choices for ourselves and our plants we can be assured our quality of life will be there for many years to come. HAPPY PLANTING!

Thanks to Dr. Bonnie Appleton, State Extension Nursery Specialist in Virginia Beach for supplying this information. It was taken from her class I attended on Landscape Tree Selection.

Copyright 2005 by Peter Deahl. All rights reserved.

Back to Articles
The Pruning School 16 Berkeley Court Sterling, Virginia 20165