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Shade Tree Buying Guide


Any tree can make an impact on a landscape, but a large shade tree can be truly dramatic. In addition to their beauty, climbability, poetic inspiration, and more, shade trees have many practical benefits as well. Choosing the right tree is a big decision and one that will impact your landscape for years to come.

Benefits of Shade Trees

  • Reduce heating and cooling costs both indoors and out. By reducing electricity usage, energy costs could be reduced by 25 percent.
  • Drop the summer temperatures under their canopies by up to 10 degrees.
  • Reduce heat reflected from paved areas.
  • Attract and sustain wildlife.
  • Convert carbon dioxide to oxygen.
  • Help prevent soil erosion.
  • Increase your property value.
  • Provide leaves for the compost bin.
This article defines a shade tree as one that exceeds twenty-five feet in height at maturity.

Shade Tree Options

shade tree

Before you try to pick a tree for your landscape, think about what your specific purpose is.

If you're looking for spring blooms or fall color, remember that most large shade trees are not noted for their blooms. Smaller ornamental trees like crabapple, pear, cherry and redbud are good bets for blossoms. However, shade trees are well-known for their fall colors. Maple and ash are the most notable in this category.

If you're after shade and privacy, remember that shade trees are usually deciduous. In full foliage, they provide shade in summer. When leaves fall, they let in the winter sun. For privacy or a windbreak, evergreens are the best options.

Choosing Locations for Shade Trees

root diagram

A shade tree is an investment in your home's future and in the environment. A misplaced tree is doomed to a stressful and perhaps short life. A tree that outgrows its space can damage and endanger nearby structures. No matter what type of shade tree you choose, you need to consider the following:

  • Soil - Do a soil test and follow the recommendations. Urban areas often have shallow or compacted topsoil that needs amending.
  • Sun - How much sunlight does the site get? Most shade trees prefer full to partial sun. Check the plant tag for sunlight requirements.
  • Wind - Strong prevailing winds dry out the tree and the soil. Trees with dense foliage can be toppled by severe storms.
  • Space - How much space do you have? Plan for the tree's size at maturity. The mature height and width should be on the plant tag. You can also check a plant guide for these key measurements. Remember the space needed for proper root growth. A tree's roots can grow up to three times the diameter of the canopy. Consider your neighbors when choosing and planting - they might not enjoy raking leaves as much as you do. Don't plant a shade tree too close to other trees. They'll compete for water and nutrients and none of them will thrive.
  • Utilities - If you have wires overhead, your tree can only reach a maximum of 20' in height (maybe less) before interfering.
Before beginning any excavation, check for underground utilities. Call the North America One Call Referral Service at 1-888-258-0808 (or just dial 811) for a national directory of utility companies.

Shade Tree Considerations

shade tree shapes

Healthy shade trees require little maintenance other than occasional pruning and feeding. And of course, there's the raking. A mature tree can produce a lot of leaves. Make sure you're up to the challenge. Also keep in mind how you'll be mowing around the tree. Unless you enjoy whacking your head every time you pass underneath it on a riding mower, look for a tree without low-hanging branches.

Growing Zone
Native plants are always a good bet and trees are no exception. Although they're not all shade trees, check the list of official United States state trees. Whatever you decide, get a tree that's suitable for your USDA growing zone.

Rate of Growth
Faster-growing trees usually have a shorter life span under some conditions, as rapid growth doesn't produce a strong system of roots and branches. On the other hand, some trees survive for hundreds of years. They won't begin to reach mature heights for some time and quite frankly, you may not be around to see it. Planting one of these varieties is definitely a gift for future generations.

Trees will mature into distinctive shapes. Make sure the tree fits the overall design of your landscape.

All of your thought and research when selecting a tree is worthless if it doesn't grow. Make sure that you plant the tree correctly and get it off to a good start.

Pruning and Trimming
Lower branches help support the tree and trunk and provide balance. Cut sparingly or consult an arborist before pruning anything other than dead wood. Don't top trees - if your tree has overgrown its bounds there are alternatives to giving it a flattop. Crown reduction is a technique that allows the tree mass to be reduced without changing its natural shape or endangering its health. Again, consult an arborist about these techniques.

Trimming Around Trunks
Avoid string trimmers unless you have a very steady hand. Even small wounds to the outer bark allow insects and disease inside. When bark is stripped from around the trunk (called girdling), the tree eventually will die.

Grass Underneath
Sometimes trimming underneath a large shade tree is a non-issue since very often no grass will grow there anyway. The fact is, maintaining turfgrass under shade trees can be a challenge. When grass and trees compete for water, nutrients and sunlight, usually the trees win. If you insist on grass, there are shade-tolerant grass varieties available. The alternative is to make the area under the tree a turf-free area. Mulch 2-4" deep (more than 6" is too deep - water and air won't get through). Keep the mulch 1-2" away from the trunk.

Feeding and Watering
Healthy trees generally don't require much fertilizing. If you notice reduced growth, give them a feeding in autumn or early spring. Provide water during drought, but only if you're able to water the tree deeply. Remember that a tree's roots are normally in the top 6-12" of soil and any water or chemical (fertilizer or pesticide) will be absorbed by the tree.

 Name Shape Height Comments

 Red Maple

 Acer rubrum
 Upright,  spreading
80-100 feet
Foliage appears early and falls early. Fall foliage varies from yellow to  scarlet. Medium to fast growth rate.

 Norway Maple

 Acer platanoides


Dark green foliage turns yellow in fall. Medium growth rate.

 Sugar Maple

 Acer saccharum
 Dense, oval
100 feet plus
Fall foliage varies from yellow to orange to scarlet. Slow to medium  growth rate.

 Silver Maple

 Acer saccharinum
 Oval,  spreading


Resembles the sugar maple but is a very fast grower. Tolerates poor  soil.

Red Oak

Quercus shumardii
 Upright, oval


Fall foliage is dark red. Provides brown acorns in the fall. Transplants  easily. Fast growth rate.

 Green Ash

 Fraxinus  pennsylvanica
 Rounded, oval


Fall foliage is bright yellow. Drought resistant. Seeds may sprout in  garden; seedless varieties are recommended. Fast growth rate.

Weeping Willow

Salix babylonica
 Wide- spreading


Yellow fall foliage. Thrives in wet areas. Fast growth rate.

Colorado Blue Spruce

Picea pungens


Evergreen with intense blue foliage. Rarely needs pruning. Slow  growth  rate.

Canadian Hemlock

Tsuga canadensis


Evergreen with dark green foliage. Prune regularly to encourage  fullness. Medium to fast growth rate.

White Pine

Pinus strobus


Evergreen with blue-green needles. Produces 6-8" cones. Fast  growth  rate.

 River Birch

Betula nigra


Green leaves turn tan in fall. Tolerates wet soil. Bark naturally peels  away from trunk. Fast growth rate.

 Leyland Cypress

Cupressocyparis leylandii


Drooping evergreen branch form is unique and attractive. Fast growth  rate.

Southern Magnolia

Magnolia grandiflora


Large, dark green leaves. White blooms in spring. Medium growth  rate.

London Plane Tree

Platanus x acerifolia

Up to

100 feet
Also known as sycamore. Yellow foliage in fall. Mottled bark and  small  fruit add interest. Fast growth rate.

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