How to Select the Right Trees and Shrubs for Your Yard

Not all trees and shrubs do well in all locations. Here’s a quick guide to selecting and locating plants to get the best results.

Hardiness Zone

The hardiness zone of any plant is defined by a number that corresponds to a zone map (see below). This standardized system shows where a particular tree or shrub can grow successfully without being damaged by cold winter temperatures. For areas on the border between two zones, ask a local nursery for their recommendations.


The size of a tree or shrub usually refers to its mature size, which you must always take into consideration when choosing a location. A tree that grows to a diameter of 20 feet shouldn’t be planted five feet away from your house unless you want to do a lot of pruning for many years to come.

Growth Rate

When asking a supplier about a particular tree or shrub’s growth rate, get information that’s as specific as possible. A label that characterizes the growth rate simply as “fast” or “slow” isn’t useful. A good supplier will add some context, such as “grows 12–16″ per year in the proper zone.”

Soil Requirements

It’s essential that you know a specific tree or shrub’s soil requirements before buying. The terms used are straightforward: moist, dry, clay, sandy, acid, alkaline, and so on. A soil test (see How to Improve Your Soil) explains what type of soil you have and usually offers specific recommendations for improving it.

Sun and Shade Requirements

Each tree or shrub listing should also include sun and shade requirements. Though most trees and shrubs can still survive even if they aren’t placed in ideal sun or shade conditions, it’s unlikely that they’ll grow successfully or fully. Recommendations range from bright sun to dark shade with two or three steps in between.

Maintenance Requirements

Maintenance requirements can vary greatly across different trees and shrubs. Some plants are hardy and require little care, whereas others need frequent pruning, routine fertilizing, or hand watering. Choosing a high-maintenance plant may seem acceptable in the short run, but the extra work may become unwelcome over time.

Disease Resistance

Different trees and shrubs have different levels of disease resistance. Avoiding disease-prone species is especially important because trying to eliminate a disease once the plant is in your yard is often very difficult, if not impossible. Tree and shrub growers have had a lot of success in creating more disease-resistant plants over the years, so be sure to take advantage of these advances.


Appearance is important as well: trees and shrubs are architectural elements that can separate your property into different outdoor rooms or provide beautiful focal points all year round. Consider the following:

  • Is the tree deciduous (loses its leaves at the end of the growing season) or evergreen (remains green year round)?
  • Do you like the size and shape of the tree? (See below for a guide to major tree shapes.)
  • Does the tree have flowers for part of the year? If so, what color and type?
  • Does the tree produce fruit? If so, what type?
  • What kind of leaves or needles does the tree have? Do they change color throughout the year?
  • What type of bark does the tree have? Does it change in appearance throughout the year?