Hero Image

Marin IJ Articles

Picking the right tree for the job

  • Marie Narlock
  • We've all seen — and drooled — over gardens that feature a massive, aged specimen tree. If your garden came with a showstopper, consider yourself lucky (and quit lighting it, because you're just rubbing it in.)

    There's nothing like being shaded by a massive oak or watching the blue sky peek through a blazing big leaf maple in fall, especially when you consider how many years — or hundreds of years — it took to mature. It's as if that tree was waiting for you to arrive.

    For the rest of us who don't have 200 years to wait, there are fantastic alternatives. They may not get 100 feet tall and wide in your lifetime, but that doesn't make them less desirable. In fact, it can make them easier garden guests.

    Deciding which specimen tree to select for your garden takes some patience and research, but the rewards are great. The hard part is convincing yourself that running down to your local nursery is not the first move. It's not. In fact, it could be your last move.

    The key to successfully selecting the perfect patio or specimen tree is to get out a piece of paper and answer the following questions honestly and succinctly. If you can do that, you will be a gigantic step ahead of the tree-buying curve (and crowd). And then, OK, you can talk to your nurseryman. Here's the information to take with you.

    • Sun and heat: Will you tree be exposed to a lot or a little?
    • Soil: Is yours in working order, or do you have some amending to do?
    • Water: Is your irrigation system in good shape? Don't plant anything if your only plan is to hand water. It's the horticultural kiss of death.
    • Location: Will your tree be in the middle of a stone patio? In a bed? In a container? How big of a container?
    • Size: What ultimate height and width is ideal? (This is a very common oversight. Don't buy a tree that will become a pruning nightmare or — worse — will require expensive removal in a few years because it's simply too big or blocks your neighbor's view.)
    • Function: Do you want your tree to cast shade in summer but let in light in winter? Do you want to sit underneath it or next to it? Does it need to screen out an unsightly view or not block an attractive view?
    • Maintenance: How and who will handle care and pruning?
    • Nice-to-have amenities: Do you want flowers? Fall leaf color? Fragrance? Edible fruit? Interesting bark?

    Now comes the fun part. What are some options? Since sun is such a make it or break it growing factor, let's group a few choices by exposure.

    If your tree would have plenty of sunshine, especially in the afternoon, you have a world of choices. Consider a fruit tree if you're into that kind of thing: citrus is lush and evergreen all year, pomegranates sport red fruit and yellow leaves in fall, and persimmons offer summer shade and unparalleled winter interest. Fruit trees require pruning, watering, feeding, and harvesting. If you prefer a less taxing tree, consider the smallish pink honey myrtle (Melaleuca nesophila), which has distinctive peeling bark and pink flowers. This Australian native is drought tolerant, easy, and different. Other contenders with showy bark include the crape myrtles, paperbark maples, and manzanitas.

    A particularly attractive manzanita is "Dr. Hurd," which has handsome burgundy arms. (Note: Manzanitas require extra patience, since they aren't known for speedy growth rates.) The crab-apples are outstanding flowering trees and come in a diverse array of sizes and shapes, including weeping, rounded, spreading, upright, vase-shaped, and pyramidal. If you've got a wall where you can highlight a tree's shadow, it's hard to beat the gnarly, twisted branches of Harry Lauder's walking stick.

    Dappled light coupled with cooler conditions and a little more water provides the perfect growing condition for the redbuds and dogwoods. Give them a little extra water and some afternoon protection from blazing sun, and then stand back and enjoy their immense beauty. One eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis "Forest Pansy") is particularly stunning, with magenta flowers in spring and green and burgundy heart-shaped leaves all season. Or try the underused witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia). Keep it well watered and you will be rewarded with interesting and fragrant yellow flowers followed by colorful fall foliage.