Planting Trees to Landscape Your Yard

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A garden landscape design featuring lawns, trees, evergreen topiary bushes and flower bed

Trees and shrubbery can add structure and dimension to your landscape design.

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Add Value and Curb Appeal to Your Home Using Unique Trees and Shrubs

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When it comes to adding curb appeal to our homes and improving the landscape, it can help to think big! Planting trees and shrubs should be the basis of your landscaping plans, helping to bring structure to your yard and gardens. Consider your surroundings, even your neighborhood, and before you buy and begin digging, think about how various trees and shrubs mature and the care they need. Learn how incorporating trees into your landscape design can make a BIG impact.

Unusual Big Trees

Large specimen trees outlive us and add the greatest value to a home. Typically, they are selected for fall color or hardiness or because they are evergreen. A specimen tree can mature at 40 to 50 feet tall or more and have a canopy as much as 30 feet in diameter. 

These trees should not be planted within 30 feet of a house or power lines to ensure a natural growth habit and prevent property damage. Most create shade, so shallow tree roots, under-planting possibilities, the potential for mulch, and the risk of decreased lawn vigor should be considered.

Be aware that unusual trees add diversity to the neighborhood, which can help prevent the spread of disease and blight. Decide how much shade, shape, and color you want from trees in your landscape. Ask an arborist or nursery if they are suitable for your site.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides tree, autumn and fall tree close-up in Tsinandali, Kakheti, Georgia
A Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides).
Photo: Tai Dundua/Shutterstock

The following large specimen trees have a 30-to-40-foot spread. Although most are hardy from USDA Zones 3 to 8 (learn which zone you are in), they would be unusual additions because they are not commonly seen:

  • Cryptomeria, or Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica): pyramidal
  • Cucumber tree magnolia (Magnolia acuminata): layered; flowering
  • Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides): pyramidal deciduous 
  • European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus ‘Columnaris‘ or ‘Fastigiata’): spreader; interesting bark
  • Golden larch (Pseudolarix amabilis [kaempferi]): pyramidal deciduous; golden fall foliage
  • Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum): spreader; caramel-color leaves in fall and subtle caramel scent

Not-So-Big Trees

Smaller trees suit small spaces or small suburban properties. These trees top out at 20 to 30 feet, with a dripline (canopy) of about the same diameter. The proportion of house and lot to tree size becomes visually important in smaller, sometimes confined spaces. When selecting a tree, remember that you don’t want one that will require extensive pruning to keep its branches away from the house or utility lines.

Paperbark Maple with brown bark in a park
Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum)
Photo: COULANGES/Shutterstock

On the subject of pruning: Consider removing the lower branches (paradoxically called “high pruning”) of some trees to allow for people and machinery to pass under the canopy. This creates a narrower top for some species and allows them to plant understory shrubbery, perennials, and ground covers. High pruning can help to maintain a pleasant canopy while at the same time permitting some light to filter under the tree and perhaps create an area for sitting or a shade plant garden. Some to consider include:

  • Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonicus): compact, deciduous; horizontal branching; rounded crown; bell-shape white flowers
  • Paperbark maple (Acer griseum): spreader; colorful, curling bark
  • Pawpaw (Asimina triloba): deciduous; purple flowers yield edible fruit (learn about pawpaw bread, made from this American fruit)
  • Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia): deciduous clump-forming shrub/small tree; irregular rounded crown
  • White fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus): spreader, rounded habit; showy white flowers

Tree Options for Wetlands

Many trees will not be happy in areas that retain moisture, but these large tree varieties love a boggy environment:

  • Bee bee tree (Evodia daniellii): spreader, umbrella-shape; fragrant white flowers; 25 to 30 feet at maturity
  • Pond cypress (Taxodium distichum ‘Nutans’): pyramidal deciduous; roots protrude above ground when in/near water; 30 to 70 feet tall at maturity
  • Weeping willow: spreader; stout trunk, with a crown of downward sweeping branches; 30 to 50 feet tall at maturity 

Ornamental Trees

“Ornamental” refers to a tree with attractive characteristics such as overall shape, foliage color, flowers, or unusual seedpods. These low-to medium-height trees (10 to 20 feet and 20 to 25 feet tall, respectively) require less maintenance and do not shade large areas. 

'Fort McNair' Red Horse Chestnut
‘Fort McNair’ Red Horse Chestnut
Photo: Monrovia  

Cultivars not commonly seen include:

  • Cockspur hawthorn (Crataegus crusgalli): dense, low-branched, broad-rounded crown; seasonally orange to scarlet to purple-red foliage; white flowers
  • Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata): oval/rounded crown; fragrant, creamy white flowers
  • Paperbark birch (Betula papyrifera): vase shape; exfoliating white bark
  • Ruby red horse chestnut (Aesculus carnea): deciduous; oval/rounded habit; red flowers
  • Saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana): spreader, rounded crown
  • White fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus)

Border Trees

Tree and shrub borders define a property, create a windbreak, and serve as a backdrop for lawn and flower or ground cover beds. 

‘Degroot’s Spire’ American Arborvitae
Photo: Monrovia

Large pyramidal cultivars of these evergreens can be border plantings:

  • American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis)
  • Austrian pine (Pinus nigra)
  • Leyland cypress (Cupressus x leylandii)

Border Shrubs

Growing to eye level or slightly taller, shrubs form the character, “rooms,” and visual appeal of your landscape. Their shapes add form and definition year-round, create views, guide the eye, and even hide “mechanicals” (e.g., air-conditioning units). Choose shrubs based on height, foliage, flower color, blooming season, winter interest, and compatibility with your soil and moisture conditions.

'Snowball' Virburnum
‘Snowball’ Virburnum
Photo credit: Getty Images

Select a shrub with a natural shape that fits your design to reduce pruning chores. These reliable performers mature at around 15 feet:

  • Golden vicary (Ligustrum x vicaryi): multistem: vase shape; deciduous; flowers attract bees and butterflies
  • Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’): multitrunked, suckering; unusual shape
  • Ninebark (Physocarpus): upright; spreader; deciduous; pink or white flowers
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier): vase shape; slightly fragrant white flowers
  • Viburnum (Viburnum): many hybrids; genus of 150 to 175 species vary in height, spread, and flowers

Small Shrubs

Any shrub that naturally grows to less than 18 inches tall can be considered a woody ground cover. These are more low-maintenance than annual or perennial flowers, help to control weeds and soil erosion, reduce the need for mulch, and serve as year-round design features. Many have trailing, creeping, or cascading habits. 

Round pruned Dwarf Japanese Yew. Taxaceae evergreen shrub.
Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata)
Photo: tamu1500/Shutterstock

These dwarf shrubs are useful cultivars in flower borders, rock gardens, or the crevices of stone walls. They will add hardy height variation, color variation, texture, winter interest, and subtle fruit and flower interest. These include:

  • ‘Bobozam’, aka ‘Mr. Bowling Ball’, American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis): dense; globular; yellow and green foliage
  • ‘Everlow’ yew (Taxusxmedia): wide spreader
  • ‘Grey Owl’ red cedar (Juniperus virginiana): spreader; vase shape; gray-green foliage
  • ‘Monloo’ Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata): spreader; compact; dense
  • ‘Tiny Tim’ American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis): conical; aromatic yellow-green to green foliage

Foundation Plantings

Use varieties of boxwood (Buxus) shrubs as foundation plantings and in borders. Boxwood is easy to maintain and adaptable to various soils and moisture conditions. To prevent winter burn and avoid some varieties that have an unpleasant odor, consider these boxwoods:

  • ‘Aureovariegata’ (Buxus sempervirens): rounded to broad-rounded; variegated foliage
  • ‘Green Mountain’ (Buxus): upright; naturally conical
  • ‘Green Velvet’ (Buxus): evergreen; foliage turns bronze in winter
  • ‘Winter Gem’ (Buxus sinica var. insularis): compact; many-branched; mounded; evergreen

Use this information as a shopping list to do additional research to help you make successful, long-lasting decisions.

Do you utilize unique shrubs and trees in your landscaping? Tell us which varieties are your favorites below.

About The Author

Jennifer Keating

Jennifer is the Digital Editor at The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She is an active equestrian and spends much of her free time at the barn. When she’s not riding, she loves caring for her collection of house plants, baking, and playing in her gardens. Read More from Jennifer Keating

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