Tips for Growing Shade Trees and Evergreens

Plant shade trees and evergreens in your yard for years of beauty.
Plant shade trees and evergreens
in your yard for years of beauty.

Shade trees and evergreens are the largest elements in the landscape, well able to complement even the biggest house. Use them to frame your home, but plan ahead to ensure that the trees will not become overwhelming; if you have a smaller house, you should plant smaller trees than if you have a very large home. With each passing year, big trees grow more valuable, increasing the worth of your house and property.

In winter, large trees have additional benefits. The lofty greenery of a big pine, spruce, or fir, or the dark, widespread limbs of a handsome oak stand out amid a landscape of brown, white, and gray. Their very stature demands respect, and in winter you will have the luxury of enjoying them without rivalry.

But large trees do more than look elegant. Did you know that large trees can help lower your energy bills? Shade-casting trees to the south or west of your house can keep the house 10 degrees cooler in the summer. By starting some shade trees now, you are making an investment in the future. Here are some things to keep in mind when selecting the right trees for your yard:

  • Choose pest or disease-resistant species or varieties instead of problem-plagued trees. When you take the time to select a tree ideally suited for your site, your chances of long-term success are great. But they're even better when you check the track record of the tree you have in mind. If it's prone to insect or disease attack, continue your studies to find alternative, untroubled species or varieties. Because large shade trees can live for decades, even centuries, spending an extra hour or two determining the best tree to plant will pay off for a long, long time.

    Instead of European white birch, try disease-resistant river, Monarch, or Avalanche birches. A substitute for a silver maple tree is Celebration maple. Try substituting Crusader hawthorn for rust-susceptible hawthorns, and Metroshade plane trees for disease-susceptible London plane trees.

  • Choose younger and smaller trees to plant over larger ones. The motto "bigger is better" is not true in this case. Although you can have nearly full-sized trees planted in your yard (at a whopping price), smaller trees transplant more easily and grow more quickly than larger trees. They also cost less and are easier to handle without hiring landscapers.

    It's best to start with a tree that has a 1- to 11/2-inch trunk diameter (officially called its caliper). Very small seedlings -- the kind given away by forestry departments on Arbor Day -- are a little too diminutive. They take a long time to grow large enough to be noticed in the yard, especially if hidden amid grass.

  • When planting fast-growing trees, start with economical and quick-developing bare-root saplings. Fast-growing trees will increase in height by several feet a year. Under ideal conditions, a young tree that stands 3 feet tall upon planting will be up to 5, 6, or 7 feet tall the next year. The following year, it may be 10 feet tall or larger.

    All trees require time to reach their prime, but fast growers stay on the move and hardly test your patience at all.

  • Look to slower-growing trees for long, trouble-free lives and enough strength to withstand wind and ice storms.

  • Plant fast-growing trees with slower-growing species to get shade fast. As the slower-growing trees get large enough to make an impact on the yard, cut out the weaker fast growers. You end up with the best of both worlds -- quick greenery and lasting strength.

  • Plant evergreens in spring or summer up to about mid-August, but no later. To support their foliage through winter, they need to have a well-established root system and plenty of internal moisture before the ground freezes.

Keep reading to learn how to choose the right shade trees and evergreens for your yard.

Looking for more gardening tips? Try these links:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Choosing Evergreens and Shade Trees for Your Landscape

When you are selecting shade trees for your garden, include some trees with bold fall color for an exciting finish to the growing season. As autumn approaches, trees begin breaking down green chlorophyll and storing the components away for winter. This reveals underlying leaf coloration, which was there all along but hidden beneath the green pigments.

The ginkgo, or maidenhair tree, is an ancient flowering tree.
The ginkgo, or maidenhair tree, is a good tree for fall color.

Fast-Growing Trees
These fast-growing trees can fill the yard fast, but they may not be as sturdy and long-lived as slower growers.

  • Ash
  • Poplars
  • Willows
  • Arizona cypress
  • Eucalyptus
  • Catalpa
  • Honey locust
  • Hackberry
  • Red mulberry
  • Tulip tree
  • Cork tree
  • Japanese pagoda tree

Slower-Growing Trees

Among the best trees for fall color are maples, birches, sourwood, ginkgo, tulip tree, red oak, linden, and white ash such as Autumn Applause, all of which are outstanding when nights are cool and days are sunny.

Here are some more tips for choosing shade trees and evergreens:

  • Enjoy a tree that can double as a sculpture by planting a curly-limbed willow. Twisted branches and curling leaves make interesting focal points on small willows such as Golden Curls and Scarlet Curls.

  • Add an upright accent in narrow spaces (such as courtyard gardens) with special, extra-slender trees. Some examples are Columnaris European hornbeam, Dawyck European beech, Princeton Sentry ginkgo, and Columnaris Swiss stone pine.

  • Add spice to the landscape by growing peacocks, which are trees with uniquely colored foliage held all season long. Some of the choices that you might consider are red-leaved Japanese maples, golden-leaved box elders and tulip trees, or purple-leaved Norway maples and beech trees.

  • Some trees with colorful foliage are commonly available at garden centers and nurseries. Others can be found at specialty nurseries.

On the next page, read our tips for planting evergreens and shade trees.

Looking for more gardening tips? Try these links:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Planting Evergreens and Shade Trees

Plant your new evergreens and shade trees in a wide, shallow hole, at least twice the width of the root ball. In the past, gardeners have been advised to plant trees in holes of many different shapes and sizes. But contemporary recommendations reflect new findings in how tree roots grow. Many trees concentrate their feeding roots in the top foot of soil. A wide hole loosens up an open, surface-hugging expanse for the early growth of these roots and will help young trees get established more quickly. There is no need to amend the soil -- trees thrive best when they are established in native soil.

Plant evergreens and shade trees in a wide, shallow hole.
Plant evergreens and shade trees in a wide, shallow hole.

Here are more tips for giving your new trees a healthy start:

  • Inspect trees for any girdling roots. Just as a tight girdle can be oppressive to wear, girdling roots can squeeze a tree trunk and cut off its food supply.

    Girdling roots are common on container-grown plants. It all begins when circling roots reach upward and loop around the bottom of the trunk. As the trunk grows wider, the roots cut into it and can strangle it. In less severe cases, girdling roots may only cut into one side of the tree, causing death of limbs serviced by the damaged wood.


    If you inadvertently buy a tree with girdling roots, use your pruning shears to cut them off where they emerge from the crown before planting.

  • Check trees for deep root collars. The root collar is the junction of roots and trunk, an important place that should be kept level with or above the soil surface when planting.

    Sometimes when nurseries cultivate between rows of field-grown trees and shrubs, extra soil may be thrown up above the roots and around the base of the trunk. When the root ball is dug up and wrapped in burlap, the bottom of the trunk (and the top of the roots) may actually be deep in the ball, with only barren soil above. This leaves the tree shortchanged on roots and the root collar unnaturally deep.

    To test the depth of the root collar, rotate the trunk and see if it shifts deep in the ball, a sure sign of a deep root collar. Or, if the nursery will allow, pull back the burlap and brush back the soil to look for the junction of root and trunk.

  • Skip staking unless you are planting young trees in areas prone to strong winds. Staking can actually do more harm than good for young trees. If staked improperly, with rubbing or tight wires, the bark and trunk can become damaged, sometimes irreparably.

    Staking also interferes with the natural movement of a tree swaying in the wind. Recent research has shown that swaying helps trees develop stronger, tapered trunks that will serve them well and keep them sturdy for decades.

    Where staking is unavoidable, use flexible stakes and ties that have a couple inches of slack so the tree can continue to move. Pad the trunk or slip a section of rubber hose over the supporting wire so it won't damage the tree. Remove the stakes as soon as the tree has rooted enough to become self-supporting.

  • Avoid planting trees that deer especially enjoy eating where deer are abundant. Some of their favorites include yews, arborvitaes, and some pines. Concentrate instead on some of their least favorite trees, including maples, beech, ashes, ginkgo, honey locust, tulip tree, sour gum, spruce, sycamore, oaks, willows, and bald cypress.

Once your new trees are in the ground, they won't need much maintenance. Keep reading for our tips on caring for evergreens and shade trees.

Looking for more gardening tips? Try these links:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Caring for Evergreens and Shade Trees

Shade trees and evergreens should give you years of pleasure without a lot of effort on your part, once you've gotten them off to a good start. Here are some tips for taking care of your trees:

  • Adjust how you water a young tree as it gets established. When it is first planted and for the following growing season, provide water directly on the planting site. You can allow a hose to trickle gently over the root ball, making a shallow saucer of soil below the leafy canopy to keep the water from running off.

    Once the tree has established enough new roots to grow vigorously, use soaker hoses to water just outside the perimeter of the tree canopy. This will encourage the roots to spread outward, providing a stronger foundation for the tree.

    Properly mulching your trees wil keep the soil most and eliminate weeds.
    Properly mulching your trees will keep the soil most and eliminate weeds.

  • Mulch the tree properly. Put a layer of bark mulch, wood chips, or compost from the drip line (below the perimeter of the branch canopy) to 4 inches from the trunk (not too close or problems can arise). Mulching will help eliminate weeds and keep the planting site moist. It also looks good and gives the landscape a polished feel.

    Avoid excessively thick layers of mulch, which can limit soil aeration in heavy ground and cause roots to smother. Another problem occurs when thick heaps of mulch break down into rich organic matter. Shallow-rooted trees like maples can grow thick root mats in the mulch (which is not good), and some of those roots may start to girdle (which is even worse!). Shallow roots are also subject to excessive drying in summer.

  • Prevent summer spider mite attacks on your evergreens by spraying susceptible plants with a hose every day during hot, dry weather. If you're out watering the garden, turn the hose on the evergreen foliage as well. Water helps to dislodge spider mites and discourage their multiplication, a great nontoxic preventative.

Keep reading to learn how to safeguard your trees against the ravages of winter weather.

Looking for more gardening tips? Try these links:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Preparing Evergreens and Shade Trees for Winter

Evergreens and some fragile shade trees benefit from some TLC in autumn to prepare them for the cold winter months. Use these tips to get your trees ready for the cold:

The bark on thin-barked trees can split in winter -- wrap the trunk of such trees to protect them.
The bark on thin-barked trees can split in winter --
wrap the trunk of such trees to protect them.

  • Wrap the trunk of thin-barked trees, most notably fruit trees, in winter to help keep the bark from splitting. Tree wraps and firmer plastic tree guards can also discourage rabbits and rodents from chewing on the bark and can prevent accidental damage from mowers.

    Remove the tree wrap in the spring so it won't get too tight on the swelling trunk or provide a hiding place for pests.

  • Help prepare evergreen trees for dry winter weather by watering them more in the fall, especially when rainfall has been limited. It's also helpful to spray leaves with an antitranspirant coating, which limits evaporation from the foliage.

  • Don't plant salt-susceptible evergreens near the street in cold climates. Salt used for snow and ice control will splash up on the needles and drip into the soil. It won't be long before a thriving tree begins to brown out and then fail. Look for trees that can withstand salt spray. An example of a salt-susceptible evergreen is white pine. Some other possibilities include sycamore maple, shadblow, Austrian black pine, Japanese black pine, Red mulberry, and sour gum.

With judicious choices and proper care, the shade trees and evergreens that you plant today can enhance your home and your neighborhood for years and even decades to come.

Looking for more gardening tips? Try these links:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.