Turning a New Leaf

Fall is tree-planting season in New England. Here’s how to choose the right one for your yard. by ellen c. wells


Solid and slow growing, trees get a bad rap—the staid old aunts to a yard’s young, flamboyant flowers. But their importance is paramount. “Just as architects use walls, stairs, and windows in their palette, landscapers use plants, landforms, and steps,” says yard guru Gregory Lombardi, a Cambridge-based landscape architect. “Our largest tools are trees—they’re the strongest elements in any landscape. Because of their scale, they help the architecture step down into the land.”

Picking a tree for your yard is like choosing a lifelong companion (indeed, chances are it will outlive you). You’ll want to consider several things before deciding on the perfect tree from a nursery’s seemingly infinite options. We spent time with arborists, landscape architects, and growers to glean tips on how to pick out, place, and care for these all-important pillars of the yard.

Branching Out

“The first thing I ask homeowners is how much sun exposure their yards get,” says Peter Mezitt, general manager of Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton. He explains that most trees need at least a half day of sun, although small ones such as dogwoods do well in shady conditions.

If you want a tree close to your house, avoid species that grow over 30 feet tall—branches and roots can interfere with building foundations and sidewalks. Also be aware of utility lines and consider what you might be unearthing. The Dig Safe network (888-344-7233, digsafe.com) can scout out any existing below-ground hazards.

Remember that a tree casts a shadow onto everything around it, so be careful not to undermine your previous landscaping efforts. One option is to create a grove, planting trees just far enough apart that their canopies touch (crab apples and birches are good picks). This creates an outdoor room, complete with columns and a leafy cover.

Tree planting is an ambitious project; keep in mind you may need special equipment. A 2- or 3-inch-caliper tree, for instance, could have a root ball weighing in at 1,000 pounds, says Bill DeMore of DeMore Tree Service in Allston. Also, certain species shed leaves, sap, flowers, and seeds; crab apples and cherries drop fruit everywhere, tempting children and animals alike (they’re also prone to sticking to shoe soles). Choose wisely—one of these trees near your driveway could mean weekly car washes. Droppings can also get into gutters and storm drains, compromising your home’s drainage system.

Telling Your Maples from Your Ashes

“Generally speaking, trees that come from temperate climates do best in New England,” says Michael Dosmann, curator of living collections for the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain. “These include our own native northeastern trees, but also those from eastern and western Asia and central Europe.”
In Dosmann’s top tree picks, listed below, a specimen planting is a single tree that acts as the focal point of a landscape design. An ornamental planting is a tree that looks best when grouped with other plantings, and “usually has some other feature besides being green,” he says, “either flowers or fruit, or there’s bark interest—something that makes it showy.” A shade tree, as you might expect, offers respite from the sun.

Trees with Spring Flowers
Star magnolia (magnolia stellata) “Centennial”: This tree is marked by 3-to-4-inch white, starlike blossoms lightly tinged with pink; dark green leaves; gray bark; and an oval to pyramidal shape.
Height & Spread: 15 to 20 feet high, 10 to 15 feet wide.
Sun Requirement: Full sun to partial shade.
Droppings: White petals (in spring), small berries.
Usage: Specimen planting.

Kousa dogwood (cornus kousa): Small flowers surrounded by large white bracts in May and June often last through summer, replaced by beautiful purple and scarlet fall color. Dogwoods tend to be slow-growing trees with horizontal branching and a rounded shape, and are good for planting near buildings and under utility lines.
Height & Spread: 15 to 25 feet high, 25 feet wide.
Sun Requirement: Full sun to partial shade.
Droppings: Insignificant.
Usage: Ornamental planting.

Crab apple (malus) “Donald Wyman”: May’s deep red buds turn pink, then white when fully open. The small fruit ripens to a glossy red and can remain on the tree through winter.
Height & Spread: 10 to 15 feet high, 10 to 20 feet wide.
Sun Requirement: Full sun.
Droppings: Small crab apples.
Usage: Ornamental planting.

Sargent cherry (prunus sargentii): Adorned with clusters of 1-to-1½-inch pink flowers in spring, its smooth reddish bark and red-bronze fall color make it stunning year-round. The cherry prefers well-drained soils.
Height & Spread: 40 to 50 feet high, 40 to 50 wide (smaller if kept pruned).
Sun Requirement: Full sun.
Droppings: Small red- to dark-purple fruits favored by birds.
Usage: Ornamental planting.

Eastern redbud (cercis canadensis): Pea-size purple flowers cluster on the small, spreading branches before leaves emerge.
Height & Spread: 20 to 30 feet high, 30 feet wide.
Sun Requirement: Full sun to partial shade.
Droppings: Insignificant.
Usage: Ornamental planting.


Trees for Fall Color
Katsura tree (cercidiphyllum japonicum): This large, slow-to-moderately-fast-growing tree has small bluish-green leaves that turn lovely shades of yellow and orange and give off a spicy-sweet odor when they drop. It commonly has large roots that can grow at or even above the soil.
Height & Spread: 40 to 60 feet high, 35 to 60 feet wide.
Sun Requirement: Full sun to partial shade.
Droppings: Insignificant pods and leaf litter.
Usage: Shade tree (multistemmed trees can be used as a specimen plant).

Ginkgo (gingko biloba): With medium-green leaves that turn chartreuse to golden-yellow, this tree grows slowly at first, then more quickly with adequate water and fertilizer. Has a columnar to pyramidal shape that can be adapted to small spaces.
Height & Spread: 25 to 50 feet high, 25 to 35 feet wide.
Sun Requirement: Full sun to partial shade.
Droppings: Female trees produce foul-smelling fruit.
Usage: Shade tree.

Black gum (nyssa sylvatica): An oval-shaped tree with glossy, dark-green leaves. In the fall, the foliage is a stunning mix of purples, reds, oranges, and yellows. Its bark is gray, becoming scalelike with age.
Height & Spread: 30 to 50 feet high, 20 to 30 feet wide.
Sun Requirement: Full sun to partial shade.
Droppings: Bluish-black fruit.
Usage: Specimen and shade tree.

Korean mountain ash (sorbus al
): This fast-growing, oval-shaped tree has leaves that turn into a showy display of gold and rusty hues—a stunning backdrop for clusters of red berries.
Height & Spread: 20 to 40 feet high, 15 to 25 feet wide.
Sun Requirement: Full sun.
Droppings: Small red berries (not a significant litter problem).
Usage: Specimen and ornamental tree.

Sugar maple (acer saccharum): The jewel of New England’s fall landscape, the sugar maple has medium-green leaves that turn striking hues of bright yellow, orange, and red. It needs plenty of room to grow into its full oval shape.
Height & Spread: 60 to 75 feet high, 40 to 50 feet wide.
Sun Requirement: Full sun to partial shade.
Droppings: Leaves in fall.
Usage: Shade and ornamental tree.