Well-placed trees define and inform an entire garden so give them enough thought and get them in the ground before any other plants are selected.

When the time to plant comes at one of my projects, I’ve already spent some time noting the location of proposed trees and tree-likes from the get go on the site plan along with notes and a vague idea of what the new plants might specifically be in the form of a working plant list.   I might even begin to morph a model from the plan with actual scale twigs and props glue gunned onto the plan to help figure it out.   I’ve also already developed a clear sense of what the role of the plants will be during the design process and that continues to galvanize during construction of the garden hardscape.    This plant will make a focal point, provide a sense of scale, compose well with other elements, provide shade, establish bird habitat, filter / screen, …

That clear sense of purpose combines with an understanding of the site conditions where the tree will be grown – soils, slope, sun / shade, exposure,  availability of summer water and more and visualizing things like the shape of the tree, size of the leaf, mature height, view impact,  deciduous or evergreen, conifer or broadleaf,  seasonal attributes, costs, and availability.  Narrowing a list to one tree that can’t be bought is frustrating.  I never get it down to one and only one tree to do the job unless I already have that tree tagged at a grower, broker or wholesaler.

It’s also really important to me to consider what the tree will look like from both inside and outside the building, how much space the tree needs around it, and whether its rooting and branching habit will be compatible with the garden, the building, adjacent pavement and overhead / underground utilities.

I like to use props, so I pound some big tree stakes into the ground and walk around thinking about the location from all sides.  I visualize the mature height of the tree and width of the canopy, the drip line, and here I want the canopy to start up the trunk.

I have a lot of trees in my mental plant list, but for anyone who doesn’t do this regularly, I think it’s reasonable to look around for trees you like that grow well in your climate and conditions.   Start making lists with the pros and cons of each, including availability of the ones you’re considering and what sizes you can buy them in, what your budget is and how the plants will get from the delivery location to the planting location.  In general, I would make an effort to buy the trees as big as possible because they will anchor the rest of the plantings and they will need to be of a scale that will look right in relationship to the shrubs and smaller plants that will grow around them.

Think about getting your trees planted before the first day of spring.  Anytime the ground is workable from fall through winter is the ideal time to plant almost all trees.  Water once a day for a week, once a week for a month, and once a month during dry periods for 2 years and of course in winter, nature usually take care of that on her own.

If establishing a high canopy is a goal, start early establishing that even if it means you have something that looks like a trunk with 2 branches at 10′.    Many view properties can get big trees on their sites as long as they have a canopy management plan that raises the canopy over time to allow views under it…the antidote to tree topping is tall trees with high canopies.     For street trees, raise the canopy so that the first branches are no lower than 8′ above the ground.  For branches that swoop down, you’ll need to go even higher.   I can raise an oak canopy to 20′ high in 5 years. Higher canopies tend to let more light in and still give a nice sense of scale to a space.

Once the right trees go in the right place with a great canopy management plan, the next layer of plants can be discovered and so on.  In Seattle, most plants can be moved around for years if the moving is done during the dormant season.  Getting them in the right place the first time is a good goal and is possible, but some editing / shifting often needs to happen periodically.  The realities of plant shapes, growth rates, and how they response to adjacent plants visually and physiologically begins to influence if their locations (or being there at all) needs another look.  They all can look a bit similar and completely innocent at 1″ caliper or in their 4″ pots or 5 gallon containers fresh from the nursery.