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.
This article defines a shade tree as one that exceeds twenty-five feet in height at maturity.
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:
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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.
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.
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.