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How to Choose the Right Tree for Your Yard

If you follow conservation issues in Cuyahoga County, you know that one of the most effective things any of us can do to prevent erosion, provide habitat, capture stormwater, clean the air and fight climate destabilization is to plant trees. And with fall right around the corner, we’re approaching one of the best times of year for planting trees. But what tree will not just survive, but thrive in your yard?

Choosing a tree species that fits your site-specific conditions is critical.

First, let’s eliminate non-native tree species from consideration, so no Norway maples and especially no callery pears (which are now illegal to disseminate in Ohio!).

Now, let’s look and some of the factors to consider when choosing your native Ohio tree:

Tree Size and Shape

Knowing how tall a tree will grow and its branching pattern are important, especially at sites with nearby overhead utilities or buildings that could be affected by the tree’s height or spread. All things being equal, bigger trees provide more of the benefits described above, but many urban and suburban sites have limitations for planting trees that will grow particularly large.

Soil Conditions

How’s your soil? Is it sandy or silty? Does it drain well and dry out quickly, or does it pond water and hold moisture? The soil conditions at your site will dictate the types of trees that will thrive there. An additional soil-related consideration is how compacted your soil is. In Cuyahoga County, compacted soils are prevalent in areas if dense urban development and newer (built this century) suburban developments. Some tree species better tolerate compacted conditions.

Underground Utilities

While the presence or location of underground utilities won’t necessarily determine the species you plant, it’s important to know where they are located so that you don’t hit a utility line while planting your tree or plant your tree in a location where its roots are likely to interfere with utility lines, especially water and sewer lines or laterals. As always, be sure to call before you dig (8-1-1, or ohio811.org).

Climate Change

Because trees have relatively long lives, it is important to think not just about what the site and environmental conditions are now or will be over the next several years, but also what they will be over the next several decades. With the impact of a changing climate already being felt in northeast Ohio, and climate models showing continued warming and changes to precipitation patterns, the ranges of many tree species will shift northward, leaving Cleveland outside of the range of native trees such as eastern white pine and sugar maple. The Holden Arboretum has a concise online resource (http://www.holdenarb.org/community-engagement/best-native-trees-to-plant/) showing which trees to plant and which to avoid in the context of climate change in northeast Ohio.

Additional Resources

Cleveland Metroparks Landscaping for Biodiversity with Ohio Native Plants: A Species Guide for Plantings – Table 6 lists Ohio native trees and their characteristics related to height, urban stress, salt tolerance, soil compaction and more. https://www.clevelandmetroparks.com/getmedia/420fa064-156d-4ec2-a35a-39663c8d720a/2017NR02_Landscaping-for-Biodiversity.pdf.ashx

Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization’s Woods for Waters: A guide to planting riparian buffers for healthy streams - in addition to great information for planning riparian reforestation projects, this guide includes a species list of trees and shrubs that do well in different soil conditions (well-drained, poorly drained, etc.) http://www.cuyahogariver.org/assets/riparian_buffer_guidepages.pdf

US Forest Service Climate Change Tree Atlas – shows current and predicted ranges for over 130 tree species in the Eastern U.S. https://www.fs.fed.us/nrs/atlas/

Blog Author: Jared Bartley, Rocky River Watershed Program Manager

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