Getting Ready To Plant A Backyard Tree

By Deborah Locke, DNR Information Officer



About two years ago I bought a tiny, flocked pine tree with tiny lights from Sam’s Club. It brightened a screen porch table at Christmas and by spring, still looked green. My neighbor planted the tree in a corner of the yard where last winter, only its tip emerged from the deep snow. I watered the tiny tree each hot day last summer, and it grew. Now it’s merely small, no longer tiny.

Maybe like me you’ve wanted to plant a tree for a while. What about next spring? Kao Thao, a naturalist at Fort Snelling State Park, knows a lot about native Minnesota trees, differences between trees, and considerations in selecting a tree to add to your property.

He provided a mini lesson on trees at the park recently and said the first consideration in deciding to plant a tree is to ask what you want from the tree. Do you want to attract wildlife, tap for maple syrup, receive shade, grow fruit, provide a wind break, enjoy fall color? There’s a lot to choose from. Minnesota has 53 tree species, including the picturesque white birch of the north, hardwoods like maple and cottonwood which grow fast, and conifer (pine) trees.

Kao defined a tree as a perennial plant with a trunk and branches that grows at least 15 feet in height and stands independently of other foliage. Some species of vine, brush or shrub look like trees with trunk-like stems and winding vine-like branches.

Trees are easily identifiable in the summer months through their leaves, but their bark type is a key identifiable feature when leaves are missing, Kao said. The bark of the hackberry tree is spongy, whereas the bark of the cottonwood is thick and rough with deep gray grooves.

Another consideration in what and where to plant: consider the size of the area where you’ll plant your tree. If you have a big yard, a 100-foot silver maple will have plenty of room for its root system that can travel one and one-half times the height of the tree.

“Roots of many species grow outward, not downward, and that’s not really known to most people,” Kao said. Plant a large tree close to a home and its roots could damage a foundation and crack sidewalks. 

For help in choosing the right tree, see this Department of Natural Resource website: Kao suggests a visit to a local nursery like Bachman’s or Gertens Garden Center where you can buy a sapling. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources provides a website on preparing and planning for new residential trees. You can see it at Be sure to contact Gopher State One Call before you dig.

My small pine, a young Dwarf Alberta Spruce, is still green, still growing. It’s slightly uneven, casting an uneven shadow. If the small, cute tree could talk, it might say thanks for the water, soil, fertilizer, and for the hope. Come next November, I’ll add small lights.

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