Placing Trees

Some time ago I voiced the opinion that I was not a big fan of Japanese maples.  I heard back about that in spades. So yes, I will concede that they are beautiful trees with enchanting habit and great bark and leaf color.  But they can be very tough to place beautifully in a landscape.  The red leaved varieties are striking in appearance.  The flip side of striking?  Visually demanding.  A specimen tree is just this-a stand alone special element around which an entire space may be organized.   

A beautiful specimen tree asks for a placement that reinforces this idea.  If the idea is to feature a particular plant, other elements in the landscape need to take a supporting role.  Of course landscapes can be organized around a series of spaces or rooms, each with their own diva.  In my own landscape, my trees are either hedged, or planted in drifts, as the divas of my landscape are ornaments.  A fountain pool and groups of pots are focal points.  This is by no means the best way to design a landscape.  This is merely what I like.     

This front yard landscape was home to 9 Japanese maples, representing 5 different cultivars.  When I first saw it last October, some of the maples had black-red leaves.  Some had brown-red leaves.  Others were more clearly red.  In addition, there was a lovely sugar maple, showing yellow fall color in this picture, and 5 additional shade trees.  This made for 15 trees total in the front yard.  Some trees were in poor condition.     

Landscapes in urban neighborhoods are tough to design. They require a judicious hand, and a willingness to edit.  Every landscape gesture needs to be informed by that scarcity of space.  A landscape also needs to work in close concert with that dominant element-the home.  A landscape that respects the architecture will read coherently. There are many voices here struggling to be heard.

Of course it is easier to see years later how a placement of trees might be wanting.  Hindsight is 20-20.  Imagining the space a tree will occupy at maturity is an art; the best practioner I knew is this regard was Al Goldner.  He fearlessly placed trees in anticipation of what they might become 20 years later-even if the landscape looked too sparse and almost undone to begin with.     

Trees planted very close to the foundation of the house may be lovely the day they go in.  Years later, they can obstruct any view of the architecture they meant originally to celebrate.  It is equally as important to consider the views out from within as it is those views from the street.  Several rooms inside are dark, as the windows are covered by branches of the trees.  These branches are equally obstructing the views out into the landscape.  

Every landscape has a foreground, a mid ground, and a background space.  Those spaces need to work, no matter the angle of the view.  The Japanese maples might have presented a completely different appearance, had they been pruned differently.  Each had foliage to the ground.  They read visually as giant red shrubs, not small trees with interesting branching, and an airy appearance.  Maintenance is a very important part of a landscape.

Once the trees were gone, other elements emerged.  A pair of hollies on either side of the front door grew at different rates, and generally suffered from trees planted over them. The boxwood had declined as well.  They have damage from leaf miners; perhaps they were pruned too late in the fall.  There is some work ahead restoring them to good health.   

The beautiful sugar maple, and the hemlocks flanking each end of the house are appropriate and friendly to the architecture.  We moved a lot of plants yesterday.  Viburnums, azaleas, hollies, oak leaf hydrangeas, limelight hydrangeas, boxwood and fothergilla.  The renovation of this landscape is underway.


  1. Thank you for a very informative article. Everyone of your posts is an education.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Kelly, thanks for your letter. thinking through the placement of a tree can save a lot of heartache later. Deborah

  2. I can’t wait to see what this will look like when you’re finished. Placing a tree is extremely difficult for me for exactly the reasons you mention: I have a very difficult time imagining what a landscape will look like in five years, much less 20. And I’ll be honest, I’ve planted things I know will be in the wrong place when they are fully grown in order to satisfy myself with what they will look like in five or 10 years.

  3. Oh. They all went away. Oh.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Jenn, I am guilty as charged. I did chop down those maples. No one could possibly feel worse about it than I do. I did try for several weeks to find someone to dig them-meaning they would have to dig up the attendant boxwood and other shrubs, dig the maples, and put the boxwood and other shrubs back. I had no takers. Digging and removing these trees would have destroyed many shrubs that we were able to save and move. Few decisions that really matter are simple, clear cut, or easy. I made a decision, and I stand behind it. Deborah

  4. This will be really interesting to watch develop. Make sure we get to see it when is completed!!

  5. Boy, you must have nerves of steel Deborah. That being said, I applaud your decision. The first photos scared me; I thought you had planted all those maples!

    But it seems as though some homeowners get smitten with a plant and then can’t get enough of it. Especially when it presents itself as a small, inconsequential specimen at the nursery. They don’t anticipate its mature size; I find this happens all the time. I think its the phenomenon of ‘immediate gratification’ and too many landscapers/designers are willing to accommodate.

    And yes, I agree, there needs to be a relationship with the architecture.

    Do show us what you do to complete the design.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Ailsa, This is a big project-by this I mean a project that has every bit and the best of my attention. There will be more to come as this project moves forward. Thanks for expressing your interest, Deborah

  6. Looking at it again, I might have kept the one at the front left, but given it a bit of a pruning. And then planted perhaps a mountain ash in the middle ground on the right. Did you think about leaving just one? Or did you have a master plan that necessitated removing them all?
    Call me curious,

  7. Very interesting and informative post. True that tree placing is an art and science. The landscaper/gardener must plant intuitively along with the knowledge of how the tree would actually grow and affect its landscape companions.

  8. Another thought from the peanut gallery…. I sure hope the plume of wall ivy stays on the facade. I find the organic shape that it creates on the otherwise symmetrical field to be visually really appealing. Does it stay or does it go? (You are equally brave to open up your process like this!)

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Michael, the vine on the wall is climbing hydrangea. That plume stays if I have a say-is it not beautiful? I try to go slow enough that what is there has time to speak back to me. But not every decision is mine to make. My clients have at least 3 votes to my one-and rightfully so. By this I mean that I am much more interested in interpreting my client’s vision than imposing my own. My vision-I give that great play on my own property. Any professional visions are mitigated by what a client needs or imagines. My professional vision-lots of plain talk leavened with lots of patience. I am known to abandon an entire line of design-given a conversation. I am known to weigh in at the last moment with an unexpected seasoning. This is all I really have to offer. Deborah

  9. Tim Martin says

    It’s a shame to see trees cut, but you’ve brought new life to this home! In the first photos, there was no indication at all of the exquisite home that was underneath it all. My gut response was “what a dark and gloomy old house,” and by the time I reached the bottom photo, I now can’t wait to see how things progress in enhancing, rather than burying, this gem!

  10. Jesus…had I known it was climbing hydrangea I would have been far more emphatic. I will organize a petition writing campaign if someone wants to take down climbing hydrangea! Ironically, one of those unfortunate boxelder trees that will come down here has a climbing hydrangea on it that is JUST NOW getting ready to bloom. It was literally the first thing I did after closing on the property…I got the keys, went to a nursery, bought a climbing hydrangea and planted in IN MY NEW GARDEN…on the same day. That will be hard to see go…but can probably be moved.

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