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Choosing The Right Size Trees For A Beautiful Landscape

Here at Long Island Lumberjack, we’re often asked whether it’s better to plant a larger tree or a smaller one, especially if you want it to make an immediate impact on your landscape. In this article, we will explain how to choose the best size tree to plant and why. Specifically, you will learn:

  • How to measure or describe tree size (there are different ways and they mean different things)
  • What size trees are available
  • How to choose the right-sized tree for your garden or property

Many homeowners, especially condo owners and those with Homeowner Associations (HOAs), face unique challenges with which trees they can or should plant. Choosing the “right” tree at the nursery can be a daunting task. Read on to learn what you need to know before picking out the perfect tree for your yard or garden.

How Big Of A Tree Should I Buy?

When you decide to plant a new tree, consider:

  • How big your tree will be in its prime (to be sure it will fit where you want to plant it); and
  • How big your tree will be when you initially plant it

Many of us think that purchasing a bigger tree is better because we’re getting more for our money. But with a tree, this isn’t always true. When you’re looking for a new garden tree, you should first be looking for anatomical quality and form, not so much size and cost. It is probable that the tree you plant will remain long after you’re gone, so it’s essential to ensure its health and structural soundness.

After that, start looking at sizes and prices. If you are on a limited budget or if you don’t know the cost of different trees of various sizes, check out a local nursery to get an idea. Better yet, call a professional for some advice. Dave here at Long Island Lumberjack is a tree specialist who can answer questions you might have regarding the size of the tree you wish to plant, as well as the price range. Remember, too, that when you purchase a tree from a nursery, you’re buying that tree’s history. That history can include years of watering, pruning, fertilizing, and transplanting, as well as its transportation from growing ground to the retail nursery.

How Are Trees Sized And What Does Caliper Mean?

When growers and nursery owners evaluate trees, it is by their trunk diameter and their height. There is no ratio that all trees must adhere to, but there is an acceptable range. The trunk and branches of the tree must support its height as it grows, so both measurements are of equal importance. “Caliper” refers to the diameter of a tree’s trunk at a certain height from its trunk base. The standard measurement for this is the diameter at breast height or DBH. DBH is an oddly general measurement that assumes everyone’s breast is exactly 4.5 feet from ground level. By setting a standard height, tree growers, lumberjacks, and anyone else working with trees can consistently evaluate them.

The third part of this measurement triangle is the root spread. A tree needs a large enough root ball to anchor it securely (and take up enough water and nutrients to sustain the tree). The larger a tree grows above ground, the larger the root ball should be. And, therefore, the larger the container it needs to be grown in.

Standard Tree Container Sizes

  1. Potted or “Containerized” Trees–Small trees or saplings come in 5-gallon black nursery pots (sometimes even smaller, depending on the type of tree). The largest container you’ll see trees sold in is 25 gallons, and that’s about the maximum size anyone can handle on their own. If you plan to plant the tree yourself, we recommend buying a containerized tree.
  2. Balled and Burlapped (B&B) Trees–Trees also come with the roots balled up and wrapped in burlap. “Balled and burlapped” (B&B) trees typically require professional installation because of their larger size and heavier weight.
  3. Boxed Trees–Bigger trees that cause a large root ball are, mostly, made available in a unique wooden box. Any three-inch caliper tree or larger, for example, will probably be in a 36″ inch box, as this box size gives enough room for the tree’s root ball development. Buying and planting a boxed tree is a job best left to a professional!

How Big A Tree Can I Buy And Plant?

You can plant trees of almost any size, but a good rule of thumb is the larger the tree, the more complicated it is to transport, plant, establish in a new garden, and maintain. This is for several reasons, including the difficulty of planting a large tree, and the stress on a tree from being transplanted. Your priorities for your new tree will determine what size it should be.

Pros & Cons Of Buying A Large Tree

Plant a large, mature tree if:

  • You want immediate impact in your garden
  • Screening a view or you need more privacy
  • You need more shade in your yard but don’t want to build a shade structure.
  • You want to match a new tree to your existing trees.

There are some downsides to buying a larger tree. For example:

  • The larger the tree, the higher the cost.
  • Bigger trees are more difficult to transport and plant.
  • You will have fewer varieties to choose from.
  • Larger trees establish more slowly

Pros & Cons Of Buying A Smaller Tree

Planting a small tree may be the best option if:

  • You have a limited budget
  • You will plant the tree in a small garden, patio, or container.
  • You want to transport and plant the tree yourself
  • You plan to plant multiple trees (you’ll get more individual small trees for the same cost as one large tree)
  • You’re looking for a specific species or cultivar

The only real downside to choosing a young or smaller tree is that you’ll have to wait awhile for it to make a meaningful impact on your landscape. But if you’re willing to wait or have a longer-term vision for your garden design, buying smaller trees can help you gain two benefits –more variety (think of mixed home orchard or a colorful range of spring-flowering trees), and more structure in your landscape design if you repeat multiples of one type of tree.

Why Planting A Smaller Tree May Be The Best Option

Particularly for condo owners, the most important element when you’re choosing which size tree to buy is its growth rate after planting.

Pro Tip: While an enormous tree will give you spectacular results from the moment it’s planted, a younger, smaller tree planted at the same time may end up surpassing it by growing taller, faster. Young trees:

  • Recover more quickly from transplant shock than an older, larger tree. This means they will increase their energy stores faster and use those resources to grow up and out.
  • Establish and extend their root systems. The larger and more extensive a root system, the more water and nutrients a tree’s roots can locate and use for growth.
  • Will grow faster, and reach a greater height and spread, faster than an older tree. Young trees quickly jump into “growing mode” after transplanting and will increase in height and crown spread faster than more mature trees.

So, while you may be impatient for a filled-in, “finished” landscape, taking a slightly longer view and considering the benefits of planting a smaller tree is worthwhile. With trees, size can matter – inversely!