University of Illinois Extension

Picking Trees for the Long Term

Many trees can be planted in the early fall, allowing the advantage of warm soil for root growth before the tree goes dormant, said Nancy Pollard, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“With trees in their full fall beauty, this is a good time to get an idea of what kind of tree you might like for your yard,” said Pollard. “How do you choose a tree you can live with for years to come?

Autumn“One way is to follow three tips for successfully choosing a tree.”

Begin by looking at the site where you intend to plant the tree.

“Choosing an appropriate site will minimize costly, harmful, or drastic later tree pruning or the premature death of the tree,” she said. “Every kind of tree has a unique height, width, and spacing, as well as environmental needs to fully mature. Pick a tree that fits in the space and is well adapted to your site.”

Take a good look at the site.

“Look up. Do you see wires?” she said. “Avoid planting under electrical wires, or, if you do, chose a short variety.

“Look down. Find out where underground utilities are by calling 811 before you dig. Plant at least 10 feet away from utilities. Look around. Will views of traffic signs, pedestrians, or vehicles be obstructed as the tree grows? What other physical features are nearby?”

Finally, she added, observe the growth environment. Is it sunny or shady? Does the soil drain well? What is the soil pH? Is the soil compacted by foot or vehicle traffic? How much root space is there?

The second tip is--pick a tree to match your site.

“When fully grown, how big will the tree be compared to the space available?” she said. “The mature crown should be 10 feet or more from utility lines. Will it need to be pruned away from buildings? Will it obstruct signs or views?

“Is the tree native or well-adapted for your site? Is it prone to common diseases or insect pests typical of the region? Answering these questions may take research. Be sure to choose disease and insect-resistant tree varieties.”

Determine what kind of maintenance will be required in the short- or long-term. Will falling leaves and fruit need to be removed, or can they be left for wildlife? What seasons will showcase the tree at its most interesting?

“There are some resources to help you match the right tree to the right location,” she noted. “A good place to start is a University of Illinois Extension website (”

The third tip involves picking a good tree at the nursery or garden center.

“Is the trunk straight?” she said. “Choose a tree with a straight, single central leader. If it has multiple leaders, look for wide branch angles. As they get older, narrow-angled branch V’s are prone to split during storms. Good selection and early pruning out of narrow V’s reduces storm splitting.

“Is the trunk wounded? Reject trees with wounded trunks. Is the crown full and well balanced? Are there many crossing branches that rub and create wounds that will need to be pruned out? Will narrow V’s have to be removed to keep the tree strong? How will corrective pruning affect the crown balance?”

Also check to determine if you need to purchase mulch or woodchips at the same time the tree is purchased. Mulches keep soil cool and reduce water loss, thereby lowering stress during drought and keeping weeds at bay.

“They also protect the trunk from wounds that lead to shortened tree life,” she said.