By Joe Zeleznik, Forester, NDSU Extension agent

Spring is a great time to plant trees. What tree species or variety should I plant this year?

I’ve planted at least one tree every year for more than 30 years. Some years, it’s a single tree in the yard. In other years, hundreds of trees went in the ground as part of an experiment. This year, it’s likely to be one of those “one or two trees” years.

Should I plant an old tried-and-true species or variety? Let’s face it, a Colorado blue spruce is likely to survive and grow well. The same can be said of a green ash or an American elm. But those species all have been overplanted and represent a large portion of the urban forests of North Dakota – and a large portion of the trees in my own yard.

What about taking a risk and trying something unique? The Kentucky coffeetree has very few pest issues, if any. I actually planted a coffeetree two years ago and it seems to be establishing.

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A northern catalpa tree has some of the prettiest blossoms out there. The downside? Catalpa definitely needs protection and likely won’t survive in northern North Dakota. It also needs a bit more moisture than we usually get. I also haven’t seen catalpas last more than about 30 years here. Is that long enough to be considered as a good return on investment?

We once tried planting a unique type of maple in our backyard in Fargo. The tree made it through one winter, but not a second one. The tree wasn’t cheap – it cost about $150. How much money should we risk?

That’s a question that each person has to answer for himself or herself. I did ask it once, of North Dakota’s city foresters. As custodians of public money, they’re responsible for spending those funds wisely and not frittering them away.

On the other hand, the urban forest needs diversity to be healthy. Therefore, how much of the tree-planting budget should go toward trying new species that haven’t quite been proven yet?

The answers that the city foresters gave were quite variable but averaged about 7% or 8%. The highest was about 15%.

Taking those risks is easier when you’re planting hundreds of trees. This year, I have room for only one or two trees. What should it be?

If you’re looking to plant some new trees this year and you’re not sure what to try, please check out the North Dakota Tree Selector at https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/tree-selector. More than 100 trees and shrubs that are well-proven for North Dakota conditions can be found here.

You can select based on lifespan (short, medium or long), whether the species has showy flowers, or even by fall color or some other characteristic. The list might not include a species that has all the features you’re looking for, but the Tree Selector lists some species that likely are unfamiliar to you.

Whatever you decide to plant, make sure that you match the species to the site. That is, if the place you’re planting trees tends to be waterlogged, make sure that you pick something that is flood-tolerant.

Don’t plant a lilac or a conifer in those areas; these species are known to be intolerant of wet sites. Similarly, don’t plant those willows on a site that’s likely to be continually dry. Far too much money has been spent on trees and shrubs that are planted in the wrong location.

Some day I hope to have a tree farm. Then I’ll plant a lot of trees. I’m running out of space in the yard!

For more information about gardening, contact your local NDSU Extension agent. Find the Extension office for your county at https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/extension/directory/counties.