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How to Choose a Shade Tree

August 21, 2017

Written by Dave G.

When you move into a new home, especially a newly-built home, the garden is often left, while you settle into the house. That is only naturally, but there are two things that you should try to do as soon as possible. One is planting hedges, and the second is planting one or more shade trees. Why? Simply because these garden features take time to grow, so when you do get around to working more intensively on your garden, they will already be doing their job. A lot has been said about hedges, so let’s look at that second matter, planting shade trees. There are several factors to consider, and since a mistake takes years to fix – while a new tree grows – and can involve expensive tree-removal too, here are some considerations that will help you make the right decision.

Deciduous or Evergreen?

For most gardens, this decision is an easy one, and as attractive as that big spruce might look in the middle of your yard, it doesn’t make an ideal shade tree. Unless you live in the hottest states, you almost certainly will appreciate the sun in winter. So will your garden, with many spring-blooming plants depending on spring sunshine to grow, before summer shade slows them down. An evergreen tree will limit what you can grow in its 365-day shade, so deciduous makes sense. You too will enjoy that late fall sunshine, and the early warm days of spring, if the sun is shining through a scaffolding of branches.

In summer too, the shade from deciduous trees is brighter, and not so dark as evergreens. That dappled shade beneath a maple is inviting, and the faster rate of water-loss from the leaves of deciduous trees works to keep the air beneath them a little cooler too – something that is often not considered.

So unless you specifically want winter shade, among the deciduous shade trees is going to be the right place to start looking.

Look for Flowers or Fall Color

While shade is the main purpose for a shade tree, the added bonus of flowers is always worthwhile. Especially if you have a small garden, some of the larger flowering trees make terrific shade trees. Among the best is the Mimosa Tree, or Persian Silk Tree, which has broad, spreading branches, and one-of-a-kind pink flowers in summer. It gives a wide spread of shade, even though it only grows to 20 feet or so in height.

As for fall color, we have so many choices, it’s hard to know where to begin. Sugar Maple and Red Maple are popular choices, especially in cold areas, and don’t forget the larger Japanese Maples for a small garden. With some pruning they can be turned into beautiful small shade trees over a table and chairs.

What is Your Soil Like?

A key thing to consider about your soil is how well it drains, and if there are periods when water comes right to the surface. Most trees like good drainage, so if your garden is low-lying, and the soil is wet almost all the time, then your shade-tree choices are more limited. A great tree for damp soil is the Tulip Poplar, which thrives in ordinary garden conditions, growing rapidly, but also tolerates damp soil and periods of flooding. This tree also has extraordinary flowers, that look like green and pink tulips, and clear yellow fall color, so it is something special that grows easily and is not planted as much as it should be. Another good choice would be the Pin Oak, which enjoys heavy, wet soils, and is fast-growing, even in urban conditions. It has fascinating fall colors, in bronzy reds, and a wide-spreading form, ideal for casting plenty of shade. Willow trees are often suggested, but some have extensive root systems, and they should only be planted well away from foundations, drains or septic systems.

If your soil is acidic, then oak trees are the ideal choice, as they will sometimes grow poorly in alkaline soil. On alkaline soils, all the cherry and plum trees thrive, as well as Flowering Pear and tough trees like Silver Maple. If you do have acid soil, then adding a little garden lime when planting your tree will be a big help if you have chosen something not specifically adapted to acid soil conditions.

Get the Position Right

The sun is always to the south, so it’s important, if you want good shade, that the tree goes to the south as well. Since the hottest time of day is afternoon, the sun will also be in the west at that time. So place your tree to the south and/or west, of the spot you want to be shady. If you have an area of lawn where you want the shade, then putting the tree in the right place may often mean not planting right in the middle. You might get more use from planting closer to the roadway, or to one side or the other. Don’t automatically put the tree right in the middle – look at a compass, or you may be disappointed with your tree.

This is especially true when trees are younger. A mature tree will usually be wide enough to sit underneath, but a small tree will throw useful shade long before that – just as long as you position it in the right place. After all, why buy a tree to shade your neighbor’s yard?

Allow Enough Room

This is something that is often not done, and we see lots of trees that are too large for the lot they are growing on, or too close to a building. Planting too close to your home is especially dangerous, as many trees have roots that can, in time, damage the foundations. Rather than looking at the height of the tree you are planting, look at the mature width. Allow at least half that distance from buildings or property lines, when choosing the place to plant your tree. For example, a Sugar Maple may be 40 feet wide when mature, so plant it at least 20 feet from the house. I know – it looks small right now – how could it possibly get that big? Don’t worry, it soon will!

Whatever choice you make, give your new tree plenty of water during the first and second growing seasons. That way you will develop a strong, deep root-system, and make your tree tough and hardy, for a long and happy future.