Public Works and Environmental Services

CONTACT INFORMATION: Our administrative offices are open 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. Mon - Fri - In-person meetings by appointment only.
703-324-1770 TTY 711
12055 Government Center Parkway
Suite 518, Fairfax, Va 22035
Brian Keightley
Division Director, Urban Forest Management

Tree Selection

tree roots impact sidewalk

Trees provide numerous benefits to properties and the environment and should be considered an asset to be invested in and maintained to protect their value. Many trees can live for generations which makes species selection and location very important. When planted in an unsuitable location trees may cause problems over time or not perform to their potential. Failure to provide the benefits and services they are capable of is a missed opportunity.

The typical approach to tree selection centers on its visual appeal or desired purpose, such as privacy screening or shade. Appearance is important and, depending on species selected, can include color, texture, and form provided by foliage, flowers, bark and growth habit. Features like unique bark and berries can provide visual enjoyment throughout the year.

In addition to aesthetic value, trees can provide value based on people’s interaction with trees. Trees add value to property by reducing the cost of heating and cooling the home, making outdoor space more usable and enjoyable, and screening unwanted views and buffering noise. These benefits are based on the tree location as well as the species.

Choose the Right Species for the Right Location

Different tree species have different cultural requirements. In addition to the regional hardiness zones (7a or 7b), it is important to evaluate the specific planting location for sun exposure, soil composition and fertility, and moisture. Choose a species that is well suited to the conditions at the site so it can perform to its full potential without a lot of extra care and maintenance. Think of the individual adaptations and preferences of the tree as part of the “Right Tree, Right Place” selection criteria. For example, adequate moisture is important, but too much water can kill some trees. Similarly, not all trees thrive in full sun. Some trees require shade or partial shade. Consider the mature height and spread of the tree. Ensure there is adequate space for the crown and roots to expand without conflicting with structures, overhead and underground utilities, and pavement. This will also ensure that adequate soil volume is available to provide nutrients, store water, and enable the roots to properly anchor the tree.

Native Plants

A good place to start a search for the right tree is from a list of native trees. Native Plants for Northern Virginia (page 46) and other resources such as VA Native Plant Society, VA Department of Conservation and Recreation  and Park Authority's Green Spring Garden - Gardening Information provide good lists from which to choose. Species native to Fairfax County are integrated into the ecology of the area, so planting them helps the environment by providing food and habitat for wildlife and pollinators. Native species are typically the best choice when planting in natural areas and open spaces where construction activities have had less impact on soils and space is less restricted. In areas of more intense development some native trees lose their advantage due to previous disturbance and greater imperviousness. In these situations, it is worth considering some non-native, non-invasive species that have greater tolerance of these conditions.

Buying Plants

When buying a high-quality tree, look for sturdy trees with strong branches, uniform shape and a root ball without torn roots. Avoid trees with obvious wounds and that have been improperly pruned. Branches should be evenly spaced and be solidly attached to the trunk. For best results, choose a nursery with a solid reputation and one which offers a guarantee of the tree after planting.

For maximum contribution to the site, have a clear objective when planting a tree, choose an appropriate species, and locate it accordingly.  A species that is suited to the conditions at the site and that receives basic irrigation and pruning during establishment will require less maintenance in later in its life and be an asset for many years.

To locate growers of native plants, visit Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association Guide to Virginia Growers.

Native Seedling Sale

The Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District's annual seedling sale makes low-cost bare-root native shrub and tree seedlings available to Northern Virginia residents. See Also Plant NOVA Natives Seedling Sales and Giveaways in Northern Virginia

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