How to Select Trees for your Yard

How to select a tree

Selecting Trees for your Cabin or Cottage

If you have not had success with planting trees, you are not alone. There is so much more that goes into it than digging a hole and plopping it in there.  But even with all of the variables to consider, if you go through a step by step checklist, you can prepare yourself and give your new trees an excellent chance to be a cherished part of your land for years to come.  Let’s go step by step and make sure that you have every major concern covered:

Climate / Hardiness Zone

Generally, where you buy the tree should take care of most of this issue, but not always.  Make sure to know what Hardiness Zone you are in, and buy local. Whatever tree you are planting it needs to be a tree that is known to flourish in your area.

How to select a tree - USDA Hardiness Zones
How to select a tree – USDA Hardiness Zones

Durability and Level of Care Needed

Just because a tree is ok in your Hardiness Zone, that shouldn’t be the end of the research.  Many trees are very hard to grow, and have a lot of special care requirements. For a cabin where you are not going to be at all the time, you don’t want to be babysitting your tree for several years after planting.

Disease Resistance

Surprisingly, it is very easy to buy a tree that is well-known to get diseases and die.  Take a moment and Google the name of a tree you are considering and the word “disease”.  All trees are susceptible to diseases, but some are very fragile.

Soil Structure

You should be relatively aware of the type of soil that you have around your cabin. The first consideration is the structure of your soil.  Is it sandy or more solid with clay? This is the first consideration as it will affect how it holds water.

Soil Attributes

With a simple testing kit, you can quickly find out the pH, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potash. Don’t skip this step. It will end up saving you lots of money! By knowing the basic make up of your soil, you will know the proper fertilizer and soil amendments to make without wasting money. It is very easy to use and comes with exact instructions on how to change the soil based on the results. When you buy a tree, it is easy to Google the name and determine what type of pH level and nutrient requirements.


There are three considerations for water. 1) how much water does your tree need 2) how much does nature provide water where you are at 3) how does your soil hold water. For the most part, it is fairly easy to add a simple watering system, but you need to first find out how needy your tree is.  Also, sandy soil is notorious for not holding water, and if you can add a little Peat Moss to your soil around your tree, it will help absorb water around the roots.

Once you know the watering requirements, you generally will find that you need to water for the first two years. Don’t panic, it is very easy to set up a watering system.  You will need a timer set up to a faucet and set to water every 2-3 days. You will need to get some small devices like splitters and the end little sprinkler heads in order make a little network of water to all of your new trees. Once you get your network set up, you will need to spend a little time running it and watching the water output at each tree to make sure it is balanced.  If you don’t want to set up a timed system, there is a very cool product called a Treegator, which is a bag of water that is placed around the trunk of the tree and it slowly releases water at the base of the tree.

The final aspect to water you will see is “drainage”. This again relates to the sandy vs. clay aspect of your soil structure. Generally, sandy = high drainage, and a more clay type soil = less drainage.

Growth Rate

Trees grow at vastly different growth rate. If you are planting most oaks, for example, you are planting those for your grandchildren to enjoy. They generally grow slowly. A nice crabapple, however, will grow quite rapidly.


Know the proper spacing of your trees, and don’t cheat on this. For example, too often you see people out in the country planting rows of pines very close together.  Don’t be that guy.  Newly planted trees grow slowly for three years, but then they start to really grow, and shouldn’t be crowded together because you wanted them to look nicely grouped when they were saplings.

Deciduous or Evergreen?

If you are planting a lot of trees sometimes it is nice to mix up the two so your yard doesn’t go bare in the late fall and winter.


This can’t be overstated: if you are planting any kind of fruit tree, know its pollinators.  It might be a self-pollinator, but it probably isn’t. Normally, on the back of any fruit tree tag, it will list the pollinators that it needs to have nearby in order to produce fruit.  For example, most pear trees will list another type of pear tree that you need to plant within a short distance.

You might also have wild fruit trees around that are not producing fruit because they have no pollinators nearby. This is very common with wild cherry and apple trees.  You might be able to wake up a bounty of fruit production by simply planting some cross pollinators.

Finally, we need more bees around and they are essential to pollination. Look for native species to your area that are known as bee friendly. Designate areas around your yard or land that you can till and make into wildflower zones.

Timing of Blossoming and “Drop Times”

For trees that produce a prominent blossom and/or are fruit trees, know the different blossoming and “drop times” for the fruit. With a little research, for example, you can mix up a collection of blossoming trees so that you have at least one blossoming trees for months on end.

The “Drop Time” is simply the term for when the fruit is generally falling off the trees and ready to be picked. If you are planting these to feed the wildlife, it is good to again have some staggered timing.

Fencing Trees

Deer love young trees of any type, and love fruit trees until they get fairly mature. If you live where there is deer, you need to fence your young trees. You don’t have to get too fancy, some metal posts and chicken wire generally does the trick, but don’t ever believe in the term “deer resistant”.  Deer may have varied tastes, but at some point, you will find a deer that is interested in your young trees. Don’t give them the chance.

Mulch / Weed Barriers

This is important- that grass and weeds that grow at the base of young trees are starving that tree. It is imperative to put down a weed barrier when you plant the tree.  This can be just about two feet in all directions from the trunk, but it will keep the grass and weeds from stealing all of your water that you are putting down.

Cover the weed barrier with mulch.  Cedar mulch is great because ticks hate it, and they will show up wherever there is deer and moisture. Here is what you need to do correctly, even though you probably see it done incorrectly very often: “saucer” the mulch so that water gathers and stays near the trunk. You might see fancy landscaping where the mulch is stacked up tight to the trunk and it slopes away.  That is for aesthetics, but is wrong. Spread the mulch around the tree and then add some on the perimeter.  Create a slope toward the trunk, not away from it.  Add some mulch each Spring for three years at least.


Follow the fertilizing recommendations, but generally young trees don’t need much.  For young trees, you are generally going to use a slow release fertilizer, but don’t over do it.


Talk to your neighbors, and the local nursery.  There is generally one common pest for every area of the country that needs to be specifically dealt with. For the most part, a product like Sevin can deal with bug issues, but don’t wait for the problem to arise. Know the usual suspects and how to treat BEFORE they become a problem.


If you can spend a few minutes to learn the proper pruning technique for trees, you can really advance the growth of your tree, and to shape it how you want. You will hear a buzzword of “leader” and that is when a young tree is growing upwards, there are few possible trunks that can emerge. If the tree is starting to branch off and a definitive trunk is not establishing, you simply can cut away the undesirable vertical branches, and select the “leader” that is going to be the trunk that you want.

For the first few years, you won’t need to prune much.  Cut away any of those sprouts that start to grow at the base, and try to start to identify your leader. Don’t let parallel leaders establish… find the best vertical route of your tree with a single trunk. If there are some branches crowding, you can do some thinning out, but not too much.


Not all trees will take, but don’t be discouraged. If you are new to planting trees, pick a very hardy and easy to grow tree, and plant a few of those for the first year. You will get the hang of it and will be adding trees every year.  Don’t expect miracle growth for a few years.  In general, after year three you will be richly rewarded for your efforts.  So, start the process and plant a few trees every year without going overboard.




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