How to Decide Which Trees to Plant in Your Community

Everyone loves a lush, green landscape filled with beautiful, healthy trees. However, sometimes trees seem like more trouble than they are worth. Constant building clearance pruning, messy sidewalks, pavement damage, dying trees…how can this all be avoided?

Planting the Right Tree in the Right Place

This can usually be avoided by planting the right tree in the right place! While it may seem that any tree could be planted in any location, it really takes much thought and consideration to make sure that the right trees are planted in the right areas in order to cultivate the most attractive and healthiest landscape possible.

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Trees near Buildings

When selecting trees to be located near buildings, it is important to think of the eventual size of the tree canopy, and best to plan for the tree reaching its full maximum height and spread. When planting a tree, it is easy to forget that this little 15-gallon or 24-inch box tree is not going to stay small forever.

It is a good idea to reserve trees with large or rounded eventual canopies for open spaces away from buildings, and plant trees that will remain narrow and upright in close quarters. Some examples are the Skyrocket Oak (Quercus robur ‘Fastigiata’), the Armstrong Maple (Acer rubrum ‘Armstrong’) and the Skyrocket Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum ‘Skyrocket’). Please also remember that in very tight spaces, sometimes the best tree to plant is no tree, as even a narrow, upright tree needs room for its roots!

Trees near Hardscape

Trees that are planted near hardscape (walkways, driveways and roads, for example) need special consideration. Certain trees have a tendency to develop surface roots, such as the Liquidambar (Liquidambar styraciflua), and should not be planted too close to hardscape. Also, larger trees tend to have larger root structures, and need to be planted in areas with adequate space. Smaller stature trees are better for confined areas in parkstrips, planting medians in parking lots, and other locations close to hardscape. After selecting the appropriate tree, it is always wise to deep root water trees during establishment in order to prevent the development of surface roots.

An Eastern Redbud in bloom

Another major consideration when selecting a tree to plant near hardscape is whether or not it produces fruit that will drop and lead to messy pavement. Two prime examples are the European Olive (Olea europaea) and Purple-Leaf Plum (Prunus cerasifera). While these trees both can be quite beautiful, if planted too closely to sidewalk, they can produce stained, slippery and often odorous messes that will leave homeowners unhappy. Once again, Liquidambar trees are a huge offender when planted near hardscape, as their spiky seed pods present both a dangerous slip hazard as well as a dangerous toy for young children to throw at each other. A tree like the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) produces beautiful flowers and seed pods, but the seed pods are not usually dropped from the tree.

Trees near Utilities

According to PG&E, trees should remain at least 10 feet away from powerlines, which means trees planted near powerlines should achieve a maximum height of 25 feet. Planting larger trees near lines can create a fire and safety hazard, and results in need for frequent pruning, which creates added cost for maintenance, and results in unattractive, often unhealthy V-pruned trees.

Trees should also be planted at a distance from underground utilities. Tree roots very rarely damage pipes, but are likely to be advantageous. If a water line or sewer line has a crack, tree roots will likely find their way in. While this can be hard to avoid, planting a tree at the appropriate distance from underground utilities will help eliminate the need to remove a tree or damage its roots if an underground utility requires repair.

Right Tree, Right Climate

Selecting the proper tree for the climate is a wise way to help maximize the health of a community forest. A few of the most common trees that are struggling based on their location in an inappropriate climate (the San Francisco Bay Area) are Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), Monterey Pine (Pinus radiata), the Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana) and the Evergreen Pear 

USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map of Northern California Click on the photo to enlarge

(Pyrus kawakamii). While the climate in this area may not seem like it is so different from Santa Cruz or Monterey, it usually is. Both the Coast Redwood and the Monterey Pine are sensitive enough that the warm summer weather and lack of coastal fog affects the health of the trees. Both species of Pear are susceptible to a fungal infection caused Fireblight, which is rampant in the area because of the seasonal rains, followed by warm springs and summers. The infection is usually made worse when the trees are located in or near lawn areas, since the mist from the sprinklers causes the infection to spread faster.

One helpful tool is the Sunset Hardiness Zones. These are zones assigned to a plant species that indicate in which climate or geographical region that plant is most likely to thrive. Once a plant’s hardiness zone is determined, a little research can help determine whether that plant is suffering any afflictions or diseases in the area, or if it is a good choice for the community.

Keeping the Landscape and Homeowners Happy

Selecting the right trees for a site is an important step toward a beautiful, thriving plant palate, as well as satisfied homeowners and residents. While many considerations should be taken when selecting the appropriate trees, these four are a great starting points. It is always beneficial to include an ISA-Certified Arborist in your tree selection, and to inspect the trees before installation to ensure that you are planting good quality nursery stock. Remember, happy trees lead to happy homeowners!


By Elizabeth Lanham, Certified Arborist #WE-9234A, Serpico Landscaping Tree Care Division.

Picture adapted from photo by thrikreed, CC BY 3.0. Map provided by the USDA.

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