How to Pick the Perfect Tree for Your Yard

Every home needs a few well-chosen trees to cast shade, delight birds, and furnish a protected spot for a picnic. Here’s help for choosing trees wisely.

Every home needs a few well-chosen trees to cast shade, delight birds, and furnish a protected spot for a picnic.

You need something woody in your life. Understandably, you think twice before planting a tree, but every landscape needs a few a trees to make a statement, buffer winds, shade the house, and host the birds and insects that depend on trees for sustenance. Want some steering in the right direction before investing in something pricey and potentially large? Alex Covino of Hardscrabble Farms knows all the ups and downs of trees.

Although Hardscrabble Farms in North Salem is wholesale only and not open to the general public, your landscape contractor can visit the 80-acre nursery to select trees for your property. With years of field experience on all things arboreal, Covino has some down-to-earth advice to take the angst out of selecting a lofty planting for your site.

Fast-Growing Tree

Need something to serve as a screen or an accent and need it fast? Covino has suggestions for instant-impact trees that grow with haste. Fond of both star and saucer magnolias for their fast-paced growth, he suggested Magnolia ‘Jane’ for its handsome purple buds that swell to pink flowers with glowing centers. ‘Jane’ has star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) in its bloodlines, but it blossoms two to four weeks later than many of its kin, helping flowers escape the risk of frost damage. Covino is equally fond of willows for trees in a jiffy. Weeping willows are jolly green giants that can too quickly exceed your property’s dimensions, but other willows are better suited to the average site size. Want the bonus of color? Go for a willow with variegated leaves, such as the white- and pink-tinged Salix cinerea ‘Tricolor’ or Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki.’

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Salix integra

Street Tree

“Branching should start at six feet for a good street tree,” Covino says. Although a tree might have lower branches in its youth, you don’t want the mature specimen to mar sightlines or hinder traffic. He recommends ‘Winter King’ hawthorn (Crataegus viridis) to serve as a road warrior. Not only does disease-resistant ‘Winter King’ laugh at the rigors of urban pollution and drought, it forms red fruits in September followed by striking fall color. In the thorn department, its spines keep to a minimum. Covino also suggests the red maple Acer rubrum ‘Armstrong’ as a street solution for its upright, narrow habit and silver bark. “Or try Quercus ‘Regal Prince’ for a tree unlikely to grow into power wires,” he says. This oak combines a narrow, columnar growth habit with good disease resistance.


Acer rubrum

Deer-Resistant Evergreen

Whether you are screening the road or planting an evergreen for winter interest, it’s a heartbreak when deer denude the conifers that you carefully put in place. That’s why you want to research trees that deer dislike. Although nothing is totally bulletproof, because deer will munch on anything when they’re starving, Covino has some ideas for conifers that have a fighting chance against nibbling. The industry standard for a deer-resistant arborvitae is Thuja ‘Green Giant.’ A handsome, fast-growing hybrid between Thuja plicata and T. standishii, ‘Green Giant’ can become deer fodder during a very cold winter (Covino says it happened at his home in Brewster), but generally, they are a hungry deer’s last resort. He also suggests Norway spruce (Picea abies): “It’s a good, solid, bulletproof tree that nothing seems to bother, with a fast growth rate.”

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Picea abies


Wet Soil

For soggy soil, Covino enlists river birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’). Not only does this compact tree tolerate wet toes, but it also thumbs its nose at drought, clay soil, and air pollution. And deer leave it be. Either multistemmed or with one strong leader, this birch has beautiful peeling bark for winter interest as well as striking fall color.

Betula nigra

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Dry Soil

Got a dry patch on your property? If you want to plant on a knoll or position a tree in a place that drains too rapidly, try a linden (Tilia cordata) for its ability to deliver shade as well as fragrant flowers. Or go for a honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), which couples drought tolerance with the ability to endure salt spray and wind. Want a spark of color? Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Sunburst’ has bright yellow foliage. “It pops beside other trees,” says Covino. ‘Sunburst’ also gets raves for its deep roots that tend to forgive pavement.

Gleditsia triacanthos

Shade Tolerant

Maybe you want an accent tree for a place shaded by nearby woodlands or buildings. Covino urges you to go the dogwood route with two famed, small flowering trees — Cornus kousa or the native Cornus florida. He has a couple of favorites to recommend: Rutgers University has taken the best attributes of both dogwoods and packaged them in a series of introductions. For a pink dogwood, Covino suggests ‘Stellar Pink’ in the Rutgers series; for white flowers, ‘Aurora’ is a good choice. Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) also fit the bill when it comes to shade tolerance, but they can fall victim to the perils of winter. “Grow redbuds in a protected place,” Covino warns.

Cornus florida

Cercis canadensis

Fall Color

In a wardrobe change, many trees blush or blanch in fall to slip into stunning colors. For a suburban-size dash of color, sour gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is a favorite at Hardscrabble Farms, due to its shapely, rounded crown and straight trunk. In fall, the leaves turn fiery orange; better still, this adaptable tree grows in the gamut of dry or moist soils. Another go-to crowd-pleaser for fall color is gingko. Covino is particularly fond of Gingko biloba ‘Princeton Sentry,’ a slow-growing male cultivar with striking golden leaves.

Nyssa sylvatica

Gingko biloba

Winter Interest

You might not notice the bark on your trees until winter strips them naked, but for a major chunk of the year, that perk is primo. That’s why Covino steers contractors toward Stewartia pseudocamellia, with its sinuous, peeling bark in camouflagze colors. A tidy little tree, stewartia spends the growing season clad in deep green leaves accented by white, camellia-like flowers in midsummer, when few other trees are performing stunts. But after leaves drop, it really steps out to do a striptease worth watching. Even when not fully clothed, some trees are well dressed — proof that trees are essential in every season and on every property.

Stewartia pseudocamellia

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