Gardening: Pick your next tree wisely

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

Folks love to plant in fall, but if you’re planning to add or replace trees to your landscape, it’s wise to do some research before making a selection.

The right plant in the right place is first on the list in order to make a perfect match. Cultural needs of the tree, such as sun, moisture and soil type must be met, so be sure to check them out.

Homeowners rarely think about roots when choosing trees in spite of the fact that in search of moisture and oxygen, roots can travel as much as three times the diameter of the mature canopy, possibly damaging driveways, patios, underground pipes and septic systems, not to mention the foundations of buildings. And planting in root-filled flower and vegetable beds can be a nightmare.

The rule of thumb for the placement of trees near buildings to avoid root damage is a minimum of a 20- foot distance from a foundation for large trees maturing to 70 feet or more. For a medium-sized tree reaching up to 70 feet, a minimum of 15 feet is recommended and for small trees – 30 feet or less – a minimum distance of 8 to 10 feet is suggested. But also consider the shape and size of the tree’s canopy. Branches hanging over a roof can damage shingles during storms. And a buildup of leaves and litter on a roof and in eves troughs requires periodic removal.

People often make emotional choices when picking trees, remembering them from their childhood. You may have your heart set on a large sugar maple to commemorate sugaring with Grampa, but unless you live on a couple of acres, it’s better to select a tree that’s in scale with your house and lot. A large tree planted on an undersized lot next to smaller house will make it look smaller, but a medium-sized or small tree makes houses both large and small appear larger.

Yard litter is another issue to consider when choosing trees for the landscape. Seeds, seed pods, fruit, leaves and small branches can be a huge problem when they rain down on lawns, driveways, patios and porches at various times of the year.

Proper planting techniques can mean the difference between life and death when it comes to planting trees. A poorly planted tree may make it through the winter but begin to decline after a few years. Check out the step-by-step guide to planting trees and shrubs by certified arborist Steve Turner on the Michigan Gardener magazine website: guide-to-planting-trees-and-shrubs/.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at