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How to Plant Trees, Shrubs, and Vines

Choosing a Tree

The first step to choosing a tree is to decide what kind of tree you want. As can be expected, there are many tree varieties. We'll walk you through the difference between woody plants and flowering trees, and show you how to buy them.

Woody Plants

Woody plants, as opposed to herbaceous plants, build on their growth of previous years, becoming bigger and bigger with time. There is a limit of course -- a small shrub will never become a tall tree -- but most woody plants will continue to increase in size throughout their lives. Growth is modest, however, once they attain their full size.

When choosing a tree, be sure to consider its shape.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Trees, like this American Elm, spread out
to cover a vast amount of space.

The "full size" of any woody plant is a highly variable point. A tree growing in ideal conditions will become much larger than the same species growing in a spot for which it is poorly adapted. Protection from strong winds will also help woody plants attain a larger size, since branches are not as subject to breakage. In general, trees and shrubs grown in full sun will be much broader and fuller yet often not as tall. If the same species has to compete with other trees and shrubs (for instance, in a forest), it will often grow beyond its "maximum" height but have a narrow growth habit with fewer branches. Size and breadth are also dependent on the space available. A shrub that can reach ten feet in height and eight feet in diameter in an open space will reach less than half that if it is planted in a container, which restrains its roots.

Vines differ from other woody plants in that they adapt to the size of their support. A climbing plant may have the potential to reach 50 feet in height, but if it is growing on an eight-foot trellis, it won't get much higher than the trellis.

The ultimate size and shape of trees and shrubs can be controlled by pruning. Often, the plants in a moderate-size hedge would actually grow to become trees, but their growth can be maintained indefinitely by judicious trimming. To reduce your maintenance, try to choose plants that fit the space. You will still need to do some pruning, but annual hard pruning will not be necessary. For more information on pruning, check out Pruning Trees, Shrubs, and Vines, discussed in-depth later in this article.

When choosing a tree, consider the height it will reach.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Open growth trees, like this one, can grow very tall,
but let in light for smaller plants at the base.

For these and other reasons, the sizes given here are only approximate. If a tree is said to eventually attain a height of 50 to 60 feet, that is what it can be expected to reach within 20 to 30 years under average growing conditions. In general, most trees and shrubs grow larger much more quickly than people expect them to.

Some trees and shrubs are fast-growing: They can put on several feet of new growth a year. Fast-growers are ideal when quick results are desired. Most fast-growing woody plants, however, are also short-lived. You may be better off planting fast-growing trees and shrubs to quickly give your landscape the proper volume. At the same time, you can plant slower-growing but longer-lived plants that will one day comprise the backbone of your landscape after the short-lived plants are removed.

Trees and shrubs can be divided into groups based on different growth habits. Many trees and shrubs may have one growth habit when young and another when mature. Vines can be divided according to the way in which they climb and the kind of support they need. However, all vines can also be grown as ground covers. Just plant them in an open space with no objects to climb, and they will spread nicely. As soon as the vine finds a likely support, the plant will climb it.

Flowering Trees

Flowering trees can be one of the most memorable elements of the landscape. Fragrant flowering crab apples; frothy, aromatic fringe tree flowers; and weeping cherries dripping with pink blossoms can linger in the mind well after the flowers are gone.

A flowering tree provides a colorful canopy for your yard.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
A flowering tree provides a colorful canopy for your yard.

Flowering trees make excellent accents when planted alone; this is a good use for them on small lots. For larger areas, you can mass them or repeat them to define a straight or curved line. Many flowering trees offer all-season interest, with showy spring flowers, green or purple-bronze leaves in summer, vividly colored leaves in fall, and bright fruit or attractive bark in fall or winter.

Some Smaller Flowering Trees and Crab Apple Trees With Small Fruit

Crab apple



Palo verde

Flowering cherry

Flowering plum



Star magnolia, other magnolias

Witch hazel

 American Masterpiece, American Salute, Christmas Holly,

Donald Wyman, Louisa*, M. sargentii, Weeping Candied Apple,
Spring Snow (no fruit), Camelot*, Cankerberry, Cinderella*,
Excaliber*, Guinevere*, Lancelot*, Snowdrift*

*Excellent choices for disease resistance

  • Flowering trees can be an excellent addition to a yard with few perennial flowers. In this case, pay particular attention to tree bark as you make your selections. Tree bark (silver, black, red, or green, either smooth or textured) can be beautiful and adds winter interest to your yard. Consider, for example, stewartia's peeling bark of gray, brown, orange, or red, as well as its creamy summer flowers and great fall color. The paperbark maple, with only small, early spring flowers, has glowing, rust-colored bark and leaves that light up orange and red in fall. Colorful fall fruits provide a feast for the eyes as well as for the birds to enjoy.

  • Choose a flowering tree over a shade tree for a small garden. Not only is the size right; you'll also get beautiful flowers as a bonus.

  • Trees that stay under 15 feet tall include the Spring Glory amelanchier, Crusader hawthorn, fringe tree, and Camelot crab apple.

  • Trees that stay between 15 and 30 feet in height include Autumn Brilliance amelanchier, redbuds, and kousa dogwoods.
Flowering trees add so much appeal to your landscaping design. Try these additional ideas when picking out the type of flowering tree you want for your yard.
  • Choose trees that cast light shade if you want to plant a flower garden beneath them. Some trees allow sunlight to filter down between open branches or small leaves. Small, weeping, or long-trunked trees allow light to reach the flowers from the side during the morning and afternoon. Some good choices for mixed flower beds include crab apples, flowering plums, flowering cherries, franklin tree, golden rain tree, and Japanese tree lilac. Among the shade trees, consider honey locusts, ironwood, and birches.

    Flowering trees create a naturally appealing canopy.
    ©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
    Flowering shrubs create a naturally
    appealing layer.

  • Choose trees that have wide crotch angles to avoid weak branches and ice damage. The crotch (or branch) angle measures the distance between the trunk and the base of the branch. An upright branch has a narrow crotch angle of less than 45 degrees. A sturdy, wide-angled branch has a 45- to 60-degree crotch angle.

  • The problem with branches that have narrow crotch angles, a common occurrence on trees like Bradford pears and plums, is that they are not well supported on the trunk. If coated with ice in a winter storm, they may split off. The narrow branching angle can also catch moisture and encourage diseases.

  • Another problem can arise when upright-growing branches with narrow crotch angles near the top of a young tree begin to grow as fast as the main trunk. Prune the branches back to keep the trunk taller and dominant. If allowed to continue in this way, the tree develops a split leader, two trunks growing side by side. In severe weather, the trunks can crack apart, and the tree may be finished for good.

  • Avoid planting large-fruited trees over patios and decks. Large crab apples, apples, pears, and other fruits and berries can mar the patio and furniture and make steps slippery. Sweet, ripe fruit can attract yellow jackets and other critters. Let large fruits look pretty from afar, where they can drop unheeded in mulch, lawn, or ground cover. For outdoor living areas, choose tree cultivars with small or persistent fruit that won't drop and cause a mess.

  • Buy flowering trees in the spring. Trees purchased in the fall have probably been sitting in the nursery lot all summer.

Flowering trees are a natural way to beautify the look of your yard during the time of the year when you spend the most leisure time outside.

Shopping: Nursery Versus Buying Mail-Order

Once you've studied the situation in your garden and have a good idea of the trees, shrubs, and vines you wish to purchase, it's time to go shopping. The question is where.

Most amateur gardeners look no further than local nurseries for their plants. These growers offer a wide variety of sizes of the most popular plants, and you can pick exactly the specimen you feel would look best on your property. Furthermore, nursery employees are usually very knowledgeable about which plants do best in your area. Don't hesitate to ask questions.

The main difficulty with local nurseries is a lack of choice. They tend to stick to the tried-and-true. If you are looking for a specific species or variety, the nursery may not be able to help you. If you live near a major urban center, you may find among the local nurseries a few that specialize in less common trees, shrubs, and vines. Those nurseries are good places to shop for more unusual varieties.

When buying trees, decide if you want to order from a nursery or by mail-order.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
When buying seedlings, mail-order houses and nurseries
each have advantages and disadvantages.

It may surprise novice gardeners to discover that many nurseries operate by mail order. Mail order is an excellent way to find particular species and varieties that are not available locally. Mail-order nurseries are generally reputable companies with many years of experience in serving customers.

But beware of those that seem to offer too much for your money. They often fail to mention the original size of the tree, which may be barely more than a rooted cutting, or they may offer seedlings of unproved value. When dealing with this sort of nursery, you may find the money you saved would have been better spent on a smaller number of larger or better-quality trees and shrubs bought from a more trustworthy source. With nurseries, as with any business, you get what you pay for.

Some mail-order nurseries are specialists. They may deal only in dwarf conifers, windbreaks, trees with variegated foliage, or some other specialized category. Their plants are often expensive (some of the offered plants are extremely rare and hard to multiply), but they are often the only source of many less common trees, shrubs, and vines. They usually offer a wide range of sizes. If you are looking for a rare but expensive plant, you might be willing to buy a smaller specimen and watch it grow. Whenever possible, try to buy from a mail-order nursery that is located in a climate similar to yours: The plants you buy will already be well-adapted to your growing conditions. If you can't buy from a nursery in a climate similar to yours give your new tree, shrub, or vine ample winter protection for its first season or so. When ordering outside of your area, spring is the best time. Plants ordered in fall, especially from Southern nurseries, may not go dormant in time for early autumn freezes in the North.

Be sure to check state regulations regarding plant purchases. You may find some plants cannot be sent to your area. Most citrus-producing states, for example, will not allow citrus produced in other states to be brought within their borders. You can import plants from foreign countries, but check first for information on importation permits and fees.

Now that you know what tree to choose, let's discuss what you need before you bring it home. Preparing to plant a tree is in the next section.