Putting Down Roots: Landscape with Trees Perfect for Your Home and Climate

Plants and trees can modify the climate and increase the comfort of your home.

bioregions map for trees

Use this map adapted from Patti Rutman's illustration in The Wild Lawn Handbook by Stevie Daniels (Macmillan, 1995) to determine which trees on the Native Trees chart are appropriate for your home.

Illustration By Susan Strawn Bailey

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The presence of trees has been proven to hike real estate values. And while trees’ contribution to the aesthetic landscape is obvious, they are more than just pretty plants. Trees provide beauty, screen unsightly areas from view, ­filter dust, reduce noise, provide food and shelter for birds and other wildlife, and sometimes produce fruit. And as a huge bonus for energy-conscious homeowners, they cool houses in summer and warm them in winter by providing shade and reducing wind velocity.

Before you plant trees or make changes to existing flora in your landscape, evaluate your site for solar orientation, areas of partial or full shade, direction of summer and winter winds and storms, and potential sites for windbreaks or solar collectors. Think about where the snow drifts in winter and where heat and glare reflect from buildings and paved surfaces. Find out the type and fertility level of your soil.

When deciding what trees to plant, consider growth rate, size at maturity, branching habit, root pattern, and whether the particular species produces flowers, fruit, or nuts.

A tree that reaches 35 feet at maturity is okay for an average city lot with a one-story house. Trees that reach 50 to 100 feet are too tall for a small house and are better choices for much larger yards of at least 1⁄4 acre (10,000 square feet).

Trees with shallow, fibrous root systems that branch out in many directions—as opposed to tap-rooted trees that send down one main root—can ­create problems by clogging sewer and water lines. Avoid planting elms, willows, poplars, and maples near drainage pipes.

Trees should be planted at least thirty feet from the house, and the distance between trees should be no closer than the limbs will reach at maturity. For instance, the distance between oaks should be about sixty feet, between lindens, about forty feet, between sugar or red maples, fifty feet.

Trees By Region 

In cool and temperate areas (Alaska, Maine, most of Vermont, the upper northern boundary of the country and a band across the middle of the country from East to West), use evergreen trees to provide a windbreak on the north and west sides of the house and deciduous trees on the west and south sides for shade in summer.

In hot-humid areas  (the Southeast and Hawaii), plant deciduous trees on the west and south sides of the house for shade and consider planting them on the north side as well. Because wind direction is variable throughout the year in these areas, contact your local extension agent for recommendations about the best positioning of trees for a windbreak. The nearest weather station can also provide information on the prevailing direction of summer and winter winds.

In hot-arid areas (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, the lower tip of Nevada, and Southern California), use trees and shrubs around the house to shade the house walls and create a microclimate and moderate temperatures. A 1989 study by University of Arizona professor Gregory McPherson showed that low-growing, broad-spreading trees that shade walls are more effective than tall trees that shade roofs because the former reduce the solar heat gain through windows and walls. McPherson’s study also showed that afternoon shade on the west wall provides greater energy savings than identical shade on an east wall in the morning.

Native Trees: A Selected Guide for Regions Across the Country 

The species recommended here are native (indigenous to their region) and known for strong performance. The ecoregions are shown on the map. Always evaluate a selection for suitability to your specific site and be sure it is not an invasive species.

Northern Conifer Forest  

Shade
• Paper birch (Betula papyrifera)

Evergreen
• Balsam fir (Abies balsamea)
• White pine (Pinus strobus)

Eastern Woodlands 

Shade
• Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)
• Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica)

Evergreen
• Eastern arborvitae, northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis)

Coastal Plain 

Shade
• Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)
• Red oak (Quercus rubra)

Evergreen
• Southern magnolia (Magnolia ­grandiflora)

Tropical Forest 

Shade/Evergreen
• Mahogany (Swietenia mahogani)
• Twinberry or Simpsons stopper ­(Myrcianthes fragrans)
• Pigeon plum (Coccoloba diversifolia)

Prairie 

Shade
• Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)
• Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa)
• Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana)

Rocky Mountain Forest 

Shade
• Rocky Mountain maple (Acer glabrum)
• Gambel’s oak (Quercus gambelii)

Evergreen
• White fir (Abies concolor)

Western Desert/Great Basin 

Shade
• Big tooth maple (Acer saccharum subsp. Grandidentatum)
• Western chokecherry (Prunus virginiana subsp. Melanocarpa)

Sonoran Desert Area 

Shade
• Blue palo verde (Cercidium floridum)
• Arizona sycamore (Platanus wrightii)

Evergreen
• Desert ironwood (Olneya tesota)

Pacific Forest 

Shade
• Mountain dogwood (Cornus nuttallii)
• California black oak (Quercus celloggii)

Evergreen
• Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum)

Chaparral 

Shade/Evergreen
• Sierra juniper (Juniperus occidentalis)
• Interior live oak (Quercus wislizenii)
• Western yew (Taxus brevifolia)

Trees Help Us Breathe 

We often hear about planting trees to detoxify the air, but did you know that shade trees directly reduce vehicle emissions from parked cars? A 1999 California study proved that lowering the temperature of a parking lot with 50 percent shade from trees reduces reactive organic gas and nitrous oxide emissions from fuel systems by 2 percent and 0.2 percent, respectively. So look for the nearest shade tree when you park your car in public spaces, and consider planting shade trees near your driveway if you don’t have a garage or carport.

Trees Bring Out the Best in Us 

A 1999 study conducted by the University of Illinois Human-Environment Research Laboratory indicated that Chicago residents living in housing projects surrounded by trees are more sociable and less likely to commit domestic violence, and their children engage in more creative play. The researchers theorize that trees and grass draw residents outside, providing a place for supportive friendship and community.