Trees define the landscape, creating the bones of your garden. With so many different types to choose from, how do you pick a tree that will beautify your home? Whether you’re looking for shade, privacy, or something ornamental, you can find just the right tree to fit your needs.
Choosing a Tree By Its Mature Size
Most people fail to consider the mature height and appearance of a tree when they are selecting one for their landscape. Trees are generally sold in containers, much smaller than their full-grown height. The tree’s shape will also say a lot about whether it is suitable for the area in which you want to place it. Sure, the tree might look great while it’s sitting there in the container, but once it’s planted and grown to the point of concealing your existence, or the roots have become entwined in your septic lines, how great is it then?
Trees that are too large for the landscape will not look appealing. Then again, choose one that is way too small and you may as well be choosing a shrub instead, leaving the landscape looking barren. Any tree placed within a landscape should complement its surroundings and remain within scale to your home as well the rest of the landscape.
Deciduous Trees or Evergreen Trees?
When selecting trees, there are generally two types to choose from: deciduous and evergreen.
Deciduous trees lose their leaves in the fall after putting on a spectacular color display. These types of trees are most popular due to their flowering abilities, foliage color, and interesting shapes. Common deciduous trees include large types, like oaks and maples, or smaller varieties, such as flowering dogwoods and crabapples.
Evergreens do not lose their leaves and remain green year round. These include conifers such as pine, spruce, and cedar trees. Evergreens can add drama to landscapes, especially in winter where they make beautiful backdrops amid a blanket of white snow.
Think About and Research Your Landscape Tree Needs
The best way to ensure the right tree for your landscape is to perform some research beforehand. There are numerous resources available, from books to online resources. Also, take a walk around your property, noting any existing trees and in what areas of the landscape you would like to add more. Determine your overall purpose and the tree’s function.
Perhaps you are looking for more shade. Will the tree be chosen merely for its flowering in spring or its fall color? Do you want to add some privacy to your home? Consider its overall size and shape before making any decisions, especially when you’re ready to purchase one. This is where all of your research will pay off; saving you both time and money later on down the road.
With shade trees, it is important to consider height since they are usually located nearest the home. This means that safety issues need to be addressed. Generally, the oak tree is one of the safest choices you can make. These trees are extremely sturdy. Red maples, best known for their amazing fall foliage, also make fast-growing shade trees and suitable landscaping choices. Sycamore trees are fast growing and ideal as shade trees as well. Furthermore, these trees provide additional interest with impressive, flaking bark. Elm trees with their towering, yet, graceful canopies are excellent choices too.
Not everyone, however, requires something large. Maybe you live on a small lot or perhaps you are simply looking for something to shade your patio or deck. If this is the case, choosing a smaller-sized tree is most fitting provided you select one having large-spreading canopies, such as a dogwood.
Consider Flowering Trees
Dogwood trees offer striking blooms during spring, interesting branching patterns during summer and beautiful foliage during fall. Other good choices for spring flowering include ornamental fruit trees; the fruit is merely a bonus. My favorites are Bradford pears and apple trees. Flowering landscape trees can be the main attraction of the landscape during the spring season. Weeping cherry trees are spectacular blooming specimens for the spring landscape as are magnolias.
However, did you know that some trees bloom in summer as well? For example, crepe myrtles provide stunning flower color and have a long blooming period, lasting from mid-summer to fall. Maybe it’s fall color you’re looking for. Good choices here include maples, ash, poplars, and some oak varieties. Japanese maples display exceptional foliage color not only in autumn but during summer as well.
An interesting tree for winter enjoyment include birch trees. Birches have interesting branching patterns as well as unusual bark.
Do You Need Privacy?
Privacy is sometimes an important factor when selecting trees for the landscape. Many evergreens are used for this purpose, as they remain full and green throughout the year. Arborvitae trees are attractive year round. These evergreen trees are commonly used for creating screens or privacy fences. Blue spruce not only looks lovely in winter as a specimen plant, but planting more than one will also create appealing windbreaks and additional privacy. Evergreen trees always deserve a welcoming spot in the landscape. Their foliage brightens winter scenes, offering an opportunity to distance ourselves from the gloominess of dark winter days.
Many evergreen trees can actually be pruned down to resemble shrubs and used as foundation plantings to obscure unsightly areas or provide year-round interest. Good considerations here include evergreen yew and holly. Either of these can be grouped to form a hedge, or used as a specimen plant by itself. Hollies provide an additional bonus. The foliage of these evergreens can be used for winter decorations during the holidays, and their lovely red berries attract birds as well.
No matter where you live, there’s a tree for you. Provided you’ve done your research and chosen trees wisely, your landscape will flourish with beauty year round. Nothing makes for a more stunning view than trees that please the landscape.
10 Best Privacy Trees for Your Backyard
Here's how to use nature to improve your view.
Sometimes, we all need a little privacy! Of course, you could build a fence, but a living wall of trees is so much more attractive. Plus, you'll be providing food and shelter for birds, pollinators, and wildlife in your garden. Planting all of the same kind of trees in a row is one option to make a living wall, but it sometimes can present problems down the road. For starters, planting a “monoculture” (that is, all one kind of tree or shrub) leaves you vulnerable if diseases or pests attack your trees. They're all gone in an instant! Or a hungry deer could chow down, causing a hole in the line. An alternative method is to plant a cluster of plants, with trees in back and shorter shrubs, grasses and perennials in front to achieve a layering effect. This design technique creates privacy, diversity, and a beautiful view!
When choosing trees for privacy, read the plant label or description before buying to ensure it will survive winters in your USDA Hardiness zone (find yours here). Also, pay attention to the size of the container you're buying. If you have an area that needs covered fast, you may need to go to a local nursery in order to purchase a larger specimen. Finally, don't ignore the mature size of your tree. A common newbie mistake is planting trees too close to the house, walkways, or other structures. Yes, it will grow and yes, it will eventually become a problem if its roots are lifting sidewalks, blocking the view, or crowding other plants.
Now, here are some of our favorite trees and large shrubs for creating privacy.
Junipers come in many different sizes and forms with colors ranging from blue-green to gold. Upright forms make pretty screens with some types developing clusters of blue-green fruits that add interest and texture.
Varieties to try: Gin Fizz, Hetzii Columnaris
This elegant, lesser-known tree is a fast-grower with clusters of fragrant purple blooms and gray-green foliage. Prune to achieve a spreading multi-trunk display it will screen up to 15 feet wide or more at maturity.
Varieties to try: Blue Diddly, Montrose Purple
There are many different kinds of yews, including low-growing types, but the tall pyramidal or upright varieties work well for borders and screens. They’re extremely cold-hardy, and some types tolerate part shade.
Varieties to try: Stonehenge, Capitata
This shrubby tree features clusters of fragrant white flowers in spring, which become deep purple berries that are good for jam (or to share with the birds). You’ll need to prune to create a tree form, but it’s fast-growing up to 25 feet tall! It also boasts pretty fall color.
Varieties to try: Spring Flurry, Autumn Brilliance
Arbs grow in round, columnar or pyramidal forms, ranging from a few feet to more than 30 feet tall. Most don’t need shearing to maintain their shape. They’re hardy and fast-growing, but be careful if you have a deer problem: They're one of their favorite winter snacks.
Varieties to try: North Pole, Degroot’s Spire
Pretty fern-like needles and graceful limbs make this an attractive low-maintenance plant. Look for varieties with a vertical or roughly pyramidal shape to create screening.
Varieties to try: Soft Serve, Gracilis
This graceful tree has soft, feathery foliage and tolerates part shade and extreme cold. Many types can become quite tall, so read the label and look for more manageable dwarf varieties for your backyard.
Varieties to try: Aurea Compacta, Emerald Fountain
While hydrangea is technically a shrub, several types are fast-growers and make a colorful screen. You’ll get the bonus of gorgeous flowers that last from early summer to late fall the dried flower heads remain for winter interest, too. There are a ton of types and sizes, so read the label to know what you're buying.
Varieties to try: Limelight, Fire Light
Cedar trees have a naturally elegant form and interesting cones. Weeping varieties are a striking focal point in a mixed border and work well in the landscape or pots lined up for privacy on your patio.
Varieties to try: Feelin' Blue Deodar, Horstmann
You might not think of this shrub as a privacy plant, but it's lovely planted in a cluster or loose row. The exotic-looking flowers start blooming in late summer when many other plants are winding down. Color and privacy? Yes, please!
Varieties to try: Purple Pillar, Pink Chiffon
Ornamental trees add an interesting focal point to any landscaping.
One common focal point is an ornamental or flowering tree. These focal point trees are typically smaller than standard shade trees and boasting annual flowers or colorful leaves that draw the eye and brighten the landscape.
Most ornamental trees grow only to about 25 feet so they provide little shade. Their main purpose is to add color and accent. There are many beautiful ornamental trees that are very hardy in Northern Illinois: flowering crabapple, flowering dogwood, tri-colored beeches and Canadian red cherry, flowering plum, flowering pear, hawthorne and magnolias to name a few.
Here is a list of our favorite ornamentals.
1. Eastern Redbud
This native tree is definitely a treasure to behold in the April landscape. Its magenta buds unfold into an explosion of pink flowers before the leaves even appear on the tree. Between the flowers and the unique heart shaped leaves this plant should adorn everyone’s landscape. Pretty yellow fall color.
2. Cornus Mas
Bright yellow flowers in early spring give way to red berry clusters in mid summer. Definitely a bird favorite. Great plant for use in screens, hedges, or used as a specimen.
Serviceberries are great specimen plants that work well with almost any landscape. Brilliant white flowers in early to mid spring precede clusters of berries that birds love and can also be used in pies. Fall color is a spectacular red/orange. The Autumn Brilliance, shown to the right, features gorgeous fall colors. A problem free tree!
4. Kousa Dogwood
This handsome small tree adds year-round beauty. White flowers in May and June give a milky way effect purple and scarlet fall leaves add intense color. Beautiful tree form, with horizontal branching. Partial shade to full sun. The Satomi Kousa Dogwood has splendid pink to red bracts followed in fall by hanging red fruit. Autumn leaves have red-scarlet tints.
5. Japanese Tree Lilac
This is a great tree for tough sites. In addition to surviving in less than ideal conditions this is a very showy ornamental tree. Fragrant white flower clusters on this tree can be up to 12’’ long and usually emerge in late spring to early summer. Problem free tree!
6. Dwarf Korean Lilac (standard).
This formal tree has masses of fragrant, light lilac purple blooms in early spring. Attractive dark green foliage. Perfect for small spaces.
7. Ornamental Pears
Pears are fantastic ornamental shade trees that have amazing white flowers in early to mid spring. Can be single stem or multi stem trees. Aristocrat Pears have a open pyramidal shape while the Cleveland Select Pears or Chanticleer have a more upright cylindrical shape to them.
Cleveland Select Pear – Height 20-30’ Width 15-20’
8. Japanese Maple
These are probably the most popular ornamental tree on the market. They come in weeping and non-weeping forms as well as maroon and green leaves. NEEDS TO BE PLANTED IN A PROTECTED AREA!
13. Star Magnolia
Magnolias are definitely a crowd favorite. With beautiful white flowers that emerge in early spring and can last from one to three weeks. Who wouldn’t love a magnolia in their yard?
15. Crabapples: Red Jewel, Royal Raindrops, Prairiefire
There are few plants that create greater intrigue or visual impact during all four seasons than the flowering crabapple. In the spring all eyes are enticed with delicate colors offered by emerging leaves and buds. Unopened flower buds may hint of one color and as flowers open, other hues are revealed in a spectacular floral display. As flowers fade the rich foliage offers another subtle contribution to the landscape.
As autumn arrives, crabapple foliage and fruit transform to match the vibrant colors of an artist's palette. Falling leaves reveal the glorious color of the fruit. The snow of winter accents fruit, branches, and tree shape. It is no wonder crabapples are called "jewels of the landscape."
16. Jack Dwarf Flowering Pear
A perfect specimen for tight spaces. White blossoms appear in the early spring. Tightly spaced branches for a dense symmetrical crown that leaves an impression that it has been pruned, without any need for maintenance. The glossy leaves produce fall color that is a mixture of orange, yellow and red. Very disease resistant.
Height 10-12' Width 7-8'
Want to learn more? Click here to read our blog post, "Top 10 Dwarf Ornamentals for the Landscape."
Tips for screening
Diversify the plant material. Let's say you plant a row of Leyland Cypress (please don't, here's why), and the bagworms show up and defoliate all of them. There goes your investment. If instead, you mixed the border with Leylands, hollies, magnolias, rhododendrons and the like, then the bagworms destroy a only portion of your privacy and investment. Replacement costs, if needed, are less and you still have some privacy wile waiting on new plants to grow in.
Plant multiple species in small groupings of three to five. Plant in a staggered or layered planting, not a row (if possible). This provides greater interest year round. If you don't have room for a layered planting, and a row is all you can do, diversifying is still a better long-term choice.
Avoid cramming plants on top of each other. Allow individual plants enough sunlight and air circulation to grow and fill out. The inclination is to cram a lot of plants as tightly together as possible for greater coverage. This leads to multiple fungal and bacterial diseases due to less air and sunlight circulation. Plants pass diseases between them, reducing the lifespan of your screen. Extra patience is required to wait for plants to fill out, but you save money and trouble in the end. Replacing fully grown trees in the middle of a row of fully grown trees is no easy endeavor.
Remember your neighbors when planting. They will see the backside of your screen. Consider how to make it attractive from all sides.
Add shrubs and perennials to create a more natural border. A straight row of tall trees blocking the neighbors may be efficient but it looks unnatural and static. Use varying heights and textures and add plants that bloom or have berries for year-round interest. Ex: Thuja 'Green Giant', Magnolia 'Little Gem', Viburnum 'Conoy', Inkberry holly, azaleas, and rhododendrons.
Understand the cultural conditions of your site and the requirements of the plants. Ex: Magnolias will tolerate some shade, but too much shade and they provide a screen but no blooms. The same goes for camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas. They may grow providing the needed evergreen, but will not bloom if shade is dense. Certain conifers can tolerate more shade than others. Japanese cedars work in a somewhat shady setting. 'Green Giant' arborvitaes need full sun to thrive, but can tolerate shade. The goal is to understand what you’re attempting. Don’t expect plants to perform as perfect specimens in less than ideal situations. Sometimes, we consider the only the functionality of the plant. Will it thrive in this part-sun setting (i.e. will it be full and lush, bloom, and grow quickly)? Or will it survive and meet the need or providing privacy (i.e. grow but not necessarily be a perfect specimen)? It's important to know how much sun/shade you have and what the plant's needs are before you buy.
Stand inside your home and look out your windows. Where is coverage most needed? Will one large spruce or magnolia do the job? Or a grouping in one or two areas? Mark the spots with an orange flag to remember where to plant.
Consider how quickly you need screening. Trees are characterized into slow (
Hollies are dioecious meaning the male plants produce pollen, and the female plants produce berries, the reason we want these evergreens trees. To get the berries, a male plant needs to be within 30-40' of the female for the holly to have berries. Some are self-pollinating.
Size: 30'-40' x 15'-25' (slight variation depending on cultivar).
Cultivars Suggested: 'Nellie Stevens', 'Emily Brunner', 'Satyr' Holly (American holly)
Culture: Hollies prefer full sun, but some tolerate more shade ('Satyr' and 'Emily Brunner'). The more shade the less fruit, but you still have the evergreen coverage.
Growth rate: Medium to Fast
Pests and Diseases: Hollies are relatively pest-free, but some do suffer from winter die-back and scale.
Magnolias are coveted for their big, showy blossoms, but the evergreen cultivars make a good addition to privacy screens. Many of the newer cultivars are smaller and more suited to a neighborhood.
Size: 20'-25 x 10'x 15' (varies slightly depending on cultivar)
Cultivars suggested: 'Little Gem' or 'Teddy Bear'
Culture: Full sun, to partial shade. Will tolerate mildly wet soils. 'Teddy Bear' does best in full sun, while 'Little Gem' thrives in full sun to part shade.
Growth rate: Slow
Pests and Diseases: Magnolia weevil and scale. Bacterial disease especially during rainy season.
A substitute for Leyland Cypress, many people cannot tell the the Leyland from the 'Green Giant' arborvitae. 'Green Giant' or 'Emerald Green' is a better fit in smaller landscapes.
Size: 30'-40' x 15'-20, or more narrow varieties 10'-12' x 3'
Cultivars suggested: 'Green Giant', 'Emerald Green', 'Yellow Ribbon'
Culture: Full sun to part shade
Growth rate: Medium to Fast
Pests and Disease: No serious issue, sometimes scale or bagworms
Cryptomeria japonica 'Radicans' or 'Yoshino' look very similar and make an interesting addition to the screen. Pyramidal in shape with tiny cones on the pendulous ends, these sentry-like trees are also narrow.
Size: 30'-40' x 15'-25''
Cultivars suggested: 'Radicans,' 'Yoshino'
Culture: Full sun, tolerates light shade
Growth Rate: Fast
Pests and Disease: Leaf blight of leaf spot
Sometimes, one tree is enough. You don't need a row or a hedge, just a well-placed large tree to obscure an eyesore from either direction. Spruces fit nicely into that category.
Size: 40'-60' x 10'-20' (Norway),10'-15 x 10'-15' (smaller blue spruces)
Cultivars Suggested: 'Fat Albert', 'Baby Blue Eyes', Norway, Oriental
Culture: Full sun, does not like wet feet, good wind screen
Growth rate: Slow
Pests and Diseases: Needle cast, canker, bagworms
*Colorado Blue Spruce pictured
For a full list of trees and shrubs that make good screens download this pdf: Hedges and Screens
Written by Cinthia Milner, garden coach and blog writer.
BB Barns serves all of Western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina, and Tennessee.