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For The Garden

How to Select the Best Tree for Your Yard

Author: Cathy Cromell
Issue: February, 2011, Page 97
Photo by Art Holeman

Healthy, well-sited trees form the backbone of any landscape. Follow these simple guidelines for tree selection and you will be on your way to designing an attractive, low-maintenance yard.

•Examine potential planting sites—Walk around your property to figure out how much room is available for a tree to grow to its mature size. Determine whether spreading branches will impinge on walkways and driveways or impede access to specific areas. Select trees based on their mature heights and spreads, with the aim of allowing them to grow naturally. This will eliminate the necessity of regular trimming for the sole purpose of keeping them in bounds. Such unnecessary pruning ruins a tree’s natural shape, creates green waste for overburdened landfills, and opens wounds on trunks or branches for pests and diseases to enter.

•Note if electric utility lines are nearby—Never plant trees that grow taller than 15 feet beneath utility lines, and ensure that the mature canopy will not grow to within 15 feet of them. Your utility company’s tree-maintenance workers are required to trim or remove trees that create safety hazards, and such pruning may result in strangely shaped or topped trees.

•Choose native or desert-adapted trees—Local species are able to withstand intense sun and heat, survive with minimal precipitation, and tolerate extreme temperature swings, from triple digits to below freezing, all while extracting nutrients they need from the desert’s alkaline soil, and without applications of fertilizer.

Also, well-adapted trees are less stressed by growing conditions that would challenge poorly adapted non-native species. Stress-free trees are less susceptible to attack by pests and diseases. Once established, well-adapted desert trees will save time and money on maintenance.

•Make a wish list—Jot a list of characteristics that you want your trees to have. Would you like seasonal interest to enliven the winter landscape? Consider cascalote, with its fat yellow flower clusters, to brighten the scene. How about a slender tree for a tight space? Shoestring acacia should do the trick. You might think about choosing a deciduous tree such as desert willow, which also is a premier hummingbird magnet. Tree canopies that provide shade in summer but drop their leaves in time to allow winter sun to warm the house are always nice options.

•Begin your search—After creating your “want list,” download Arizona Community Tree Council’s (ACTC) handy Guide to Arizona Desert Shade Trees, at It lists trees that thrive in the low desert in a simple-to-compare tabular format.

Tree characteristics presented include mature height and spread, shape, water use, growth rate, bloom period and flower color. The guide also covers tree type, suitability for turf or desert planting areas, frost tolerance, wildlife benefits and potential problems. Specific trees are noted as native to the Sonoran Desert or appropriate to grow near electric lines.

•Finally—Visit public gardens to familiarize yourself with the sizes, shapes and appearance of mature trees before adding them to your landscape. Staff and docents can provide insight on characteristics that matter to you.

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