Right Tree, Right Place

Seth Gibson, Water Resources Coordinator

With spring right around the corner, now is the perfect time to start thinking about the right place to plant trees. If you want to plant a tree to serve a specific purpose it is important that you choose the right tree for the job, like making sure your wildlife tree will attract wildlife. While almost any tree is a good tree, it is important to keep in mind that different trees have different requirements for them to flourish. Trees, like animals, will not be successful if you put them in unsuitable habitat. Local conservation districts and MSU Extension are great for information to help you put the right tree in the right place.  Conservation districts also often provide low-cost trees and shrubs at annual sales.

There are many resources out there about how to pick the right tree. There are three important things to focus on when researching the right tree and right place:  which hardiness zone you’re in, the amount of sunlight the location will receive, and soil type and moisture.

Hardiness Zone

These zones are based on the average extreme minimum temperature of an area. Most nurseries can provide which zones the plants thrive in and some will even post it on the packaging or web advertisement if you’re ordering online. If you’re unsure which zone your land falls in, a quick google search will be able to provide with a map of your area and the corresponding zones. Michigan ranges from zone 3-7 depending on which part of the state you are in.


This is usually expressed as full sun, partial sun, partial shade, or full shade. Full sun refers to an area that gets at least 6 hours of unobstructed sunlight on a normal day. Partial sun usually refers to a place that receives 3-6 hours of sunlight on a typical day. Similarly, partial shade refers to place that receives between 2-4 hours of sunlight on a typical day. Full shade refers to an area that receives less than 2 hours of direct sunlight. Most nurseries provide the sunlight requirements for plants that they sell.

Soil Properties

Soil itself is comprised of tiny pieces of rock, minerals, and biological matter. The soil requirements you consider can be simple or complex, possible depending on how much you’re willing to spend. For someone looking to establish a nursery, it may be worth doing some testing to look at soil chemistry. For someone looking to establish a few trees in their yard, they would most likely find themselves successful just considering the basic soil type (loam, sand, or clay) and how well the soil is drained. A good place to find soil information is on the web soil survey website (https://websoilsurvey.sc.egov.usda.gov/). This will be able to tell you basic soil type and provide some guidance on the overall moisture level. Although, your observations are going to be the most helpful when it comes to how wet is your planting site.


When you have a specific purpose in mind, it’s important to make sure that your location matches up with your desired species and that you pick the right tree for the job. When you choose a tree, it is helpful to try to be specific, right down to the genotype of the species. For example, a white pine provides a multitude of habitat benefits and grows quickly making it a nice wildlife tree. However, if you were operating on the assumption that all coniferous species make great wind buffer trees and tried to capitalize on the white pine’s growth rate, you may find yourself disappointed when the bottom branches eventually start dying back and no longer blocking the wind. Another example could be if someone wanted to plant a tree near their house to attract deer to watch. A white cedar may help deer stick around a little longer to browse on the branches, while they would more than likely just ignore a red cedar.

Trees ready to be packed by conservation district staff.

Whether you’re planting your tree for a specific purpose or just looking to add some diversity to your property, it is important to ensure that you’ve picked the right spot for the tree or the right tree for the spot. There are many resources out there and starting locally helps ensure that you get the most accurate information for your area. Conservation districts are a great source of information, and they may offer a tree variety that you’re interested in at an upcoming tree sale. They say that the best time to plant a tree was 40 years ago and second-best time is today, in our opinion, there is no bad time to plant a tree.