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The Right Tree in the Right Place

By: Sandra Nelson

We had a tree taken out this week. It was an old, gnarly redbud, half dead and continually dropping branches on the driveway. I’m thrilled that it’s gone. Not only are my stick-picking-up-days over, but I get to put in a new tree to replace it. While I would love to have a weeping cherry or a Japanese Tree Lilac to replace it, the reality is that our conditions simply won’t support ornamentals; we need to plant a tree that is native to our area. 

Luckily, here in the Midwest, we have plenty of native options from which to choose  – everything from towering oak trees to diminutive Witch Hazels. The challenge however, is not just picking a tree by its appearance, but finding the right species for the space. Even in tree planting, the gardener’s motto of right plant, right place holds true.  

oak treesWhile I would love to plant a native oak tree to support our urban wildlife, (a native oak supports over 500 different pollinators over the course of a year), its mature size of 60 to 100 ft makes it inappropriate as a replacement tree. Because I have a narrow space with power lines overhead, I need to focus on understory trees that will fill the space, but not overwhelm it.


dogwood treeAn understory tree is one that reaches about 12 to 40 feet in height and grows underneath the crowns of larger trees. Many are shade tolerant, while others thrive in a sunnier environment. Understory trees are crucial to healthy ecosystems; they provide food and shelter to a large variety of birds, insects and other wildlife. The Black-throated Blue Warbler, for example, will only nest in understory trees. Since they are smaller than the large canopy trees, – those that grow 50 feet and higher –  understory trees can be planted closer to a house. 

Since trees are definitely not my forte, I asked Dan Nelson, lead Designer at Embassy Landscape Group, for some advice. He suggested six great native possibilities.  Each one has unique characteristics that would add beauty to the landscape and bring richness to the urban environment. Being natives, they all are well adapted to existing soil and moisture conditions, which means less maintenance than non-native ornamentals. I’ve included a power point with a brief run-down on each of the six suggestions.

(Click here to view.)

It’s going to be a challenge for me to pick just one of these six trees, but whichever one I choose, I know that it will fill the empty spot perfectly!