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Shade Trees: Rate of Growth, Planting, Trimming and More

Trees add a lot to the home landscape. Planting in the right location and practicing proper tree maintenance such as pruning and watering are critical to the tree's health.  Here's some advice on choosing, planting and caring for shade trees.  We also have some tips on fast-growing shade trees.

Shade Tree Buying Guide

Benefits of Shade Trees

  • Reduce heating and cooling costs both indoors and out.
  • 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.
Good to Know

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

Choosing Shade Tree Locations

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 feet in height (maybe less) before interfering with utilities

Before beginning any excavation, call 811 to check for underground utilities.

Shade Tree Considerations

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 inches deep (more than 6 inches is too deep - water and air won't get through). Keep the mulch 1-2 inches 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 inches of soil and any water or chemical (fertilizer or pesticide) will be absorbed by the tree.

Shade Tree Comparison Chart

Shade Tree Comparison Chart