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Choosing the tree location

There are several considerations when siting a tree.

Street trees

Planting in a little square that is cut out of pavement is problematic except for the smallest trees. You'll need to choose in that situation between a small tree with a normal life expectancy of maybe 30 years, or a large tree that will also die after about 30 years after obtaining about the same height that an understory tree would have reached. As a strategy for greening some urban spaces, this may be the best you can do: you just plan to replace the trees periodically. For details about the myriad considerations for planting street trees, see this website.

Options for a 10 x 15 foot

parking lot island

Though more a shrub than a tree, any Sumac would do well in those conditions.

Small trees that would be suitable include

  • Amelanchier species - single stem specimens, not 'Autumn Brilliance'

  • Carpinus caroliniana (but not if salt is an issue or soil is compacted)

  • Chionanthus virginicus (if its width is not a problem

  • Magnolia virginiana


These are taller trees that could do well until they outgrow the space after 20 years or so, at which point they may need to be replaced.

 - If width is not a problem

  • Ilex opaca

  • Juniperus virginiana


 - Better shape for walking under

  • Nyssa sylvatica

  • Quercus velutina

Betula nigra Nancy Vehrs.jpg

River Birch has interesting bark

Street tree

Human considerations


  • Flowers

    • Spring blooms are the most prominent features of several understory trees. 

  • ​Fall color

    • Spectacular fall foliage can be reason enough to choose some trees.

  • ​Bark

    • Various bark textures provide winter interest.

  • The view

    • In locations that might obstruct a view, choose a tree with one dominant leader so that the lower limbs can be removed if necessary as the tree grows.



  • Edible fruits are fun, though it may be a decade or more before the tree produces any. See the page on Edible Native Plants.


  • A deciduous shade tree on the west side of a building will significantly reduce air conditioning costs while allowing winter sun for warmth.

Pedestrians and vehicles

  • Trees with small leaves that shed over a long period are often preferred next to parking lots.

  • Acorns and other nuts may be problematic on sidewalks.

  • The shape is important as well. Some trees can be planted near walkways or streets, but others have branches that are too near the ground.

Tree or shrub?

A tree is something you walk under, and a shrub is something you walk around!


In a small space, you can use large shrubs that have been arborized, meaning trained when young into a tree shape. Examples include Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) and Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), but any shrub that can tolerate light on its trunk could be trained this way. Some shrubs such as Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) and Common Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) make nice small trees, but you would need to keep cutting back suckers.

Viburnum prunifolium.jpg

Possumhaw (Viburnum prunifolium)

with Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea)

Essential needs of the tree

Sun and moisture

It is critical to choose a tree species that is adapted to the amount of sun and moisture at the site. It is easy to overestimate the amount of sun in a given location - this should be measured as the number of hours of direct sun after the nearby trees have leafed out. Keep in mind that canopy trees create shade, but only a few of them can themselves grow in the shade. See the details on the Native Tree Choices page.

Tulip Poplar planted by George Washington.JPG

Tulip Poplar planted by George Washington

Available soil volume

Trees need 1.5 cubic feet of uncompacted soil for every square foot of mature tree canopy. This translates very roughly to about one third fewer square feet than the area of the expected canopy (the expectation being that your uncompacted soil may be at least two feet deep). With insufficient volume, as is often seen in parking lots, the tree's growth will be stunted and life expectancy greatly shortened.

For example: a White Oak's expected minimum canopy spread is 50 feet (radius 25 feet), therefore a canopy area of 3.14 x 25 x 25 = about 2000 square feet. If your soil is two feet deep, allow an area of 1/3 less than that, or about 1300 square feet. So for instance, a yard with 44 x 30 feet of space will do, though these are minimums and more would be better. Normally, many tree roots would spread well beyond the crown, and the soil in your lawn may be quite compacted, in which case you may need to double these allowances.

  • 50+ foot spread - allow at least 1300 square feet - White Oak, Swamp White Oak, Scarlet Oak, Northern Red Oak, Southern Red Oak, Chestnut Oak, Chinquapin Oak, Black Oak, American Sycamore, Shagbark Hickory

  • 40+ foot spread - allow at least 1100 square feet - Red Maple,  Hackberry, Sweetgum, River Birch, American Beech, Swamp Chestnut Oak, Pin Oak, Post Oak, Bitternut Hickory, Mockernut Hickory

  • 30+ foot spread - allow at least 600 square feet - Willow Oak, Shumard Oak, Black Willow, Tulip Poplar, Pitch Pine

  • 25+ foot spread - allow at least 410 square feet - Black gum, Flowering Dogwood, Redbud, Hophornbeam, American Persimmon, Sassafras, Green Hawthorn

  • 20+ foot spread  - allow at least 270 square feet - Virginia Pine, Shortleaf Pine, White Pine, Paw Paw,  American Hornbeam, American Holly, American Hornbeam, Blackjack Oak,

  • 15+ foot spread -  allow at least 150 square feet - Fringe Tree, Serviceberry, Eastern Red Cedar, Chickasaw Plum

  • 10+ foot spread - allow at least 70 square feet - Sweetbay Magnolia

  • 8+ foot spread - allow at least 45 square feet - American Plum

Sun moisur
soil volume

Avoiding nearby obstacles

Houses - plant trees at least 15 feet away from buildings

Sidewalks - the roots of maples, willows and Sweetgum are more likely to damage sidewalks

Underground utilities - Call Miss Utility but be aware that there may be other underground pipes that they don't mark, such as sewer and water lines.

Never plant trees or shrubs within 5 feet of an underground power line.

Overhead wires -

Dominion's recommendations

  • 0-15 feet from the line: No trees. Shrubs under 20 feet tall at maximum growth.

  • 15-30 feet: Small trees allowed (20-45 feet, with the taller trees in this range recommended as you progress away from the power lines)

  • 30+ feet:  Large trees allowed.

NOVEC's recommendations

  • 0-25 feet from the line: Only shrubs and small trees under 15 feet at maximum growth. (There are many native shrubs but no native trees that stay this short.)

  • 20-50 feet: Under 40 foot trees

  • 50+ feet: Large trees allowed

  • Transformer boxes: Keep shrubs at least 10 feet away from transformer doors and 4 feet away from the sides.

Examples of NOVA native shrubs under 15 feet

  • Aronia arbutifolia  Red Chokeberry

  • Aronia melanocarpa  Black Chokeberry

  • Baccharis halimifolia  High Tide Bush

  • Ceanothus americanus  New Jersey Tea

  • Cephalanthus occidentalis  Buttonbush

  • Cornus amomum  Silky Dogwood

  • Cornus racemosa  Gray Dogwood

  • Eubotrys racemosus  Fetterbush

  • Euonymus americanus  Strawberry-bush

  • Hydrangea arborescens  Smooth Hydrangea

  • Hypericum prolificum  Shrubby St. John's Wort

  • Ilex verticillata  Winterberry Holly

  • Itea virginica  Virginia Sweetspire

  • Kalmia latifolia  Mountain Laurel

  • Lindera benzoin Spicebush

  • Morella pensylvanica  Northern Bayberry

  • Physocarpus opulifolius  Ninebark

  • Rhododendron periclymenoides  Pinxter Azalea

  • Rhododendron prinophyllum  Early Azalea

  • Rhododendron viscosum  Swamp Azalea

  • Rhus aromatica  Fragrant sumac

  • Rhus copallinum  Winged Sumac

  • Rhus glabra  Smooth Sumac

  • Rosa carolina  Carolina Rose

  • Spiraea alba  Meadowsweet

  • Staphylea trifolia  Bladdernut

  • Vaccinium corymbosum  Highbush Blueberry

  • Vaccinium pallidum  Early Lowbush Blueberry

  • Viburnum acerifolium  Maple-leaved Viburnum

  • Viburnum dentatum  Arrow-wood Viburnum

  • Viburnum nudum  Possum-haw

  • Viburnum prunifolium  Blackhaw viburnum

Examples of NOVA native trees under 40 feet

  • Amelanchier arborea  Downy Serviceberry

  • Amelanchier canadensis  Shadblow Serviceberry

  • Amelanchier laevis  Allegheny Serviceberry

  • Asimina triloba  Pawpaw

  • Carpinus caroliniana  American Hornbeam

  • Cercis canadensis  Eastern Redbud

  • Chionanthus virginicus  Fringe Tree

  • Cornus florida  Flowering Dogwood

  • Crataegus viridis  Green Hawthorn

  • Magnolia virginiana  Sweetbay Magnolia

  • Ostrya virginica  Hophornbeam, Ironwood

  • Prunus americana  American Wild Plum

  • Prunus angustifolia  Chickasaw Plum

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It's too bad to see trees get mangled.

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