Selecting the Right Tree for “That Spot”

“Folks used to say that there was something in the water that made the trees grow tall and come alive. Trees that could whisper, talk to each other. Even move.”- Meriadoc Brandybuck, the Lord of the Rings.

Well, we don’t have trees that can do *all* of the above, but we do have one of the best selections of trees in the greater Pittsburgh Area, with well over 250 varieties. I’m biased, sure, but come on out and see for yourself!

Clump Heritage river birch, Betula nigra ‘Heritage’ at the nursery.

As you may know, we are open at this time. The state of Pennsylvania has given greenhouses and nurseries permission to remain open because if plants aren’t taken care of, they die. Imagine that! We have 10 acres of outdoor sales floor space so keeping 6 feet distance is a breeze. That said, being careful is imperative, so if you’d rather, you can purchase over the phone and we can deliver a tree to you. Don’t worry, we’ll bring you a nice one, along with our 3-year warranty! You can go to the box stores for those small crummy trees.

A section of our tree production operation.

We carry so many trees because they are an imperative part of home landscapes. They add height and structure to the home and garden. They help buffer a home from cold winds in the winter and heat in the summer. They provide shelter and habitat for birds. Properly planted mature trees have the potential to add to property value. And, of course, they provide interest and beauty!

All these points apply to commercial properties as well.

When landscaping, I like to start with trees first since they typically mandate the most space. You can then plan shrubs, perennials, ornamental grasses, and annuals around them! This is true whether you are planting a big or small tree.

So, what does big and small mean anyway? I break down tree sizes into four groups. Little, small, medium, and large. Always take plant sizes with a grain of salt as plants like to do their own thing (sometimes a plant will grow beyond its mature listed height, so don’t hunt me down if grows a little past tag size). But let this be a guide before choosing a tree.

 

Little Trees

A grafted rose standard at the nursery.

I tried to think of a more sophisticated way of saying “extra small” and “little” is all I could come up with.

Picea pungens ‘The Blues’ at the nursery.

I consider little trees to be around 10 feet tall or less at maturity, and the width can vary. I lump cascading and weeping Japanese maples, as well as standards in this category. Standards are shrubs trained or grafted to look like miniature trees (or as one customer paraphrased it, “a bush on a stick!”).

Little trees make the most impact in high visibility areas although be aware to not plant it in a place where it may block your window view. You paid good money for those windows!

One of my favorites is Malus sargentii ‘Tina’, the Sargent Tina crabapple. This standardized dwarf tree, which is loaded with white flowers in spring and tiny red fruits in fall, looks great as a focal point or in the back of a landscape bed for height.

Some weeping trees fall into this category. Picea pungens ‘The Blues’, is a beautiful cultivar of blue spruce that attains its height from staking but otherwise just mounds and weeps. Larix decidua ‘Pendula’, or the weeping larch, is similar in habit.

 

Small Trees

My parents’ mature Japanese maple, Acer palmatum.

A pink flowering dogwood, Cornus florida ‘Rubra’. Courtesy of Aaron Grabiak.

I consider small trees to be around 15 to 25 feet tall at maturity and around the same width. Customers are shocked that this is my definition of a small tree but considering how tall sycamores and maples can grow, a 20-foot-tall tree is small!

These are a lot of your ornamental trees. I consider American dogwoods, flowering cherries, and many upright Japanese maples to be in this category.

These trees are better suited close to homes and power lines than the many pin oaks and sycamores I see under constant mutilation closer to the city. Small trees don’t bother a home or the surrounding walkways other than maybe needing an occasional limb pruned. My parents have a near 30-year-old Japanese maple that is almost as tall as the house. Its maybe 7 feet from the house, 4 feet from a cement path – and bothers nothing. It’s a welcome shady spot in the afternoon and softens the look of the house. This would not be an appropriate place for a weeping willow.

Give the tree some space so it can have a nice, round canopy. I often see trees planted 2 feet from houses and the later result is half a canopy. Don’t do that.

One of my favorite trees in this category is Malus ‘Royal Raindrops.’ This flowering crabapple produces purple new growth and hosts rich magenta blooms in mid-spring. It produces tiny, glossy maroon fruits in fall which are non-messy and a great food source for birds. Fall leaf color is great and the disease resistance, which plagues many older crabapple cultivars, is superb. I especially like crabapples because, unlike some ornamentals, they are unphased by exposed conditions. It’s a paradox to say this crab isn’t one to be “crabby!”

 

Medium Trees

A mature Himalayan Birch, Betula utilis var. jacquemontii. Courtesy of Aaron Grabiak.

A mature Fagus sylvatica ‘Purple Fountain’ at the nursery.

I consider medium trees to be over 25 feet tall at maturity but less than 50 feet at maturity. The width on most of these trees is around the same or less.

These are bigger shade trees but are still suitable for many residential yards, although better planted further away from the house. I lump Black Gums, Himalayan birch, and weeping European beech in this category. The latter are among my favorites!

In our display gardens (which are partly being redone so excuse our mess!) you can see a mature Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula, a green weeping beech, and a mature Fagus sylvatica ‘Purple Fountain’, or Purple Fountain beech. They are marvelous! There is definitely a “wow factor” in seeing a mature weeping tree in the landscape.

Check out our display garden next time you visit. A day at the beech is always nice!

Another big seller here at the nursery is Acer griseum, the Paperbark maple. This easy-going tree hosts brown-coppery exfoliating bark which provides interest and beauty even when the leaves are gone.

 

 

Large Trees

Two mature Dawn Redwoods, Metasequoia glyptostroboides. Courtesy of Aaron Grabiak.

I consider tall trees to be 50-60+ feet tall at maturity. I lump white oaks, sycamores, dawn redwoods, and Tulip poplars in this category. Some have narrower width, such as dawn redwoods, while others have more, such as many oaks.

A mature White Oak, Quercus alba, at Gettysburg National Military Park. Courtesy of Aaron Grabiak.

Not much competes for awe with healthy, large trees in the landscape. When sited with proper distance from the house, they add property value and myriad of psychological benefits. See here: https://www.arborday.org/trees/benefits.cfm

My weeping willow, Salix babylonica, is probably 60 feet tall with a spread around 2/3 of that. It’s healthy, sited reasonably from the house, and it casts shade on the house in the afternoon which helps keep the house from heating as much as it might otherwise. Matter of fact, I didn’t use my air conditioner unit once last summer!

Large shade trees provide the perfect excuse for outdoor furniture. They’re also great for shade gardens. If you’ve seen our shade perennial section in peak season, you’d know there is no shortage of plants that thrive in shadier conditions!

One of my favorites is Acer x freemannii ‘Jeffersred’, the Autumn Blaze Maple. A cultivar of a red and silver maple hybrid, it inherits its fast growth from its silver maple heritage and its fierce red fall color from its red maple heritage. As both maple species are native to our localities, this tree fits right in! Another large and easy-going native is Pinus strobus, our eastern white pine!

 

Elliptical and Columnar Trees

An elliptical European hornbeam (Carpinus). Courtesy of Aaron Grabiak.

Now I’m going to throw in a wild card! There are many cultivated varieties of trees that are elliptical or egg-shaped and others that are columnar. These trees will attain much more height than their width. There are elliptical and columnar trees in each category.

One evergreen staple we carry is Picea abies ‘Cupressina’, or Cupressina Norway spruce. This is a columnar cultivar of Norway spruce that matures around 30 feet high but with only 6 feet or so in width! This provides a great vertical accent for narrower areas where a straight Norway spruce would look ghastly.

Talk about a way to “spruce” things up!

One tree we sell out of every year is Carpinus betulus ‘Frans Fontaine’, an elliptical habited European hornbeam. This tree forms a dense canopy that matures around 35 feet high but only around 15 feet wide. I prefer these to elliptical pear trees, and they have similar urban tolerance!

I think one of the neatest columnar trees we have is Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Slender Silhouette.’ This columnar sweetgum hosts star shaped leaves, amazing fall color, and produces very few fruits unlike a straight sweetgum. But what’s most noticeable is this tree can push 50 feet tall with a width of only 4 feet! Isn’t that cool!?

 

 

 

Habits and Care

A native clump form Serviceberry (Amelanchier). Courtesy of Aaron Grabiak.

Hearkening last month’s blog entry, a healthy tree begins with its cultural requirements being met from the get-go. Pay attention to the amount of sun your spot gets. Think about the amount of water that is present in the soil. Does the yard flood and then quickly drain, is it always boggy, or is it usually well-drained? A healthy tree begins in the root zone.

My before-mentioned weeping willow loves my marshy backyard whereas a horsechestnut would relish in agony. In drier places, a crabapple will thrive whereas our native dogwood would languish without the moisture being, as Goldilocks said of baby bear’s porridge, “just right!”

Last year, a commercial account downtown requested two weeping Japanese maples in a part-shade spot. The clients were told it would be a great spot for a light green Japanese maple but a red one would lose its vibrant color. The clients chose a red cultivar anyway and the result was a mottled burgundy green that blended right in with the surrounding brick. While it was still healthy, the light green maple would have looked much better. Err on the safe side in meeting your plant’s sun requirements!

Know your yard’s conditions on a year-round basis and we will assist you in choosing an appropriate tree!

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While we may not be able to help you grow the kind of trees Merry and Pippin encountered in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, we think we can help you pick out a darn good one – one that will be just right for “that spot.” We hope we can see you this year!

Photos provided by Plumline Nursery employee Aaron Grabiak with Aaron Grabiak Garden Photography & Landscape Design.