Make choices with the long term in mind.

Flowering crabapple trees bloom in late spring, then offer ornamental fruit from summer to winter.
Trompenburg Arboretum

Discover new trees and shrubs by visiting an arboretum, college campus, or display garden. Shown here: Trompenburg Arboretum in the Netherlands.

Allow enough space for trees to reach full maturity. Blue spruces can spread 10-20 feet wide.

Spring weather in Vermont has been relatively warm and dry this year. Except for the patch on the north side of the house, the snow’s been gone from my yard for more than two weeks. The crocuses and snowdrops started popping open two weeks ago. Not bad for March in Vermont!

All this great weather has lured homeowners outside to assess their yards and dream about changes and improvements to their landscapes. They’ve been coming into our garden center in droves and asking for advice on which trees and shrubs to choose. Woody plants are long-term investments, so it pays to be thoughtful about the choices. Selecting one tree or several shrubs from the hundreds of available species and cultivars is daunting, though, even for landscaping experts.

To narrow the choices and help customers match the right trees and shrubs to their landscape, we ask a series of questions to eliminate unsuitable plants. Our goal is to find plants that will thrive where they’re planted and delight our customers for years to come.

  • What growing zone are you in? Most of our customers garden in Zones 4 or 5 with a few in Zone 3. Unlike herbaceous perennial plants, which spend the winter under the snow, woody plants are exposed all year. Shrubs and trees that are marginally hardy in our area may not survive an unusually harsh winter in colder Zones 3-4.
  • Tell me about the soil, sun, and wind in your yard. Soil drainage and texture are critical factors. Some trees tolerate wet, clay soils, others require excellent drainage. Soil compaction, pH, and road salt are important in some cases. Sun exposure—the number of hours and time of day—during the growing season is especially important for shrubs. The presence of strong wind may eliminate broadleaf evergreen shrubs and trees with brittle wood.
  • How large is the space where you intend to plant? Distance from overhead utility wires, leach fields, roads, buildings, and other trees must be considered, especially for trees. Match the available space to the mature height and spread descriptions for trees and shrubs to allow the plants to reach their full potential without pruning. Avoid planting under roof overhangs and in snow-slide-off zones.
  • What ornamental features are important to you? Consider flowers, fruit, bark, seasonal foliage color, wildlife appeal, and growth habit.
  • Is low maintenance important to you? Some trees drop messy fruit or large quantities of leaves. Some shrubs grow or bloom better with regular pruning and deadheading. Winter-protective wraps or pest and disease controls may be necessary for others.

Making a thoughtful tree or shrub choice takes time, but it’s time well spent. If you’re planning to add woody plants to your landscape, scout your yard and take notes before heading to the nursery. And don’t be afraid to ask for advice!

Ann Whitman, Nursery Supervisor, Gardener’s Supply