Fast-Growing Shade Trees
Want to add some cool beauty to your landscape? Here are fast-growing favorites for shade, screening, and spectacular ornamental beauty
It's an arboreal conundrum. Most of us want trees that fill out fast, but the same qualities that make a tree gain height quickly often render it a pest or weakling. Consider the fast-growing silver maple, with its greedy surface roots and weak wood. Then there's the princess tree, touted in newspaper and online ads, that grows up to 15 feet a year but spreads to such an extent that in some states it's known as the worst sort of weed.
Conventional wisdom says that slow-maturing trees live longer and are stronger. So can you grow a tree that'll shoot up without toppling onto your house?
Yes—with some careful vetting. First, refine your notion of fast growing to a growth rate of 1½ to 2 feet per year. Or, as Warren Roberts, longtime superintendent of the UC Davis Arboretum, puts it: "A fast-growing tree is one you can sit in the shade of, five to six years after planting." Keep in mind that most trees grow fastest when young and when planted in soil that supplies optimum moisture and nutrients. Choose well, and you can enjoy your tree in both the short and long term.
We canvassed tree experts to find good choices for shade, for screening, or for outstanding ornamental qualities that'll grow in various areas of the country (check your Plant Hardiness Growing Zone). Read on for a dozen fast-growing trees with staying power.
These deciduous trees grow to at least 50 feet high and develop a broad crown under which you can walk, dine, or rest.
Northern red oak
A broad-crowned classic that prefers moist, well-drained, acid soil. (Avoid in California and Oregon, where it falls prey to sudden oak death disease.) In California's foothills and interior valleys, choose valley oak (Q. lobata) Zones 6–11. It likes full sun and moist, well-drained soil. Both grow 60–75 feet high and at least as wide.
(Acer x freemanii)
A hybrid maple with brilliant red-orange fall color. Grows 75–80 feet high by 45–50 feet wide; prefers full sun and moist, well-drained soil with neutral pH. The variety 'Autumn Blaze' is very fast-growing. It reaches 50–60 feet high, with a broad oval crown 40–50 feet wide.
'Green Vase' zelkova
(Zelkova serrata 'Green Vase')
Vase-shaped with upright arching branches and rich, dark green leaves that turn bronzy maroon in fall. Grows 60–70 feet high by 40–50 feet wide; prefers full sun to partial shade but adapts to a variety of soils. Tolerates wind, pollution, and drought, making it a viable street tree.
Features a straight trunk and oval crown. Striking, broad, lobed leaves often conceal springtime chartreuse tulip-shaped flowers; leaves turn yellow in fall. Grows 75–90 feet high by 40–50 feet wide; prefers full sun and deep, moist, slightly acid soil.
Use these to block second-story views into your yard or blunt northern winds. Plant them in rows, groups, or alone, depending on their spread.
Huge pyramidal tree with feathery deciduous green needles that turn russet-orange in fall. Striking, deep-fluted bark. Grows 70–100 feet high by 25 feet wide; thrives in moist, well-drained, slightly acid soil and full sun.
Eastern white pine
Evergreen; soft blue- green needles. Pyramidal when young. Grows 50–80 feet high by 20–40 feet wide; thrives in moist, rich, well-drained acid soil and full sun. Intolerant of windy sites. The narrower 'Fastigiata' grows 50 feet high by 20 feet wide.
'Green Giant' arborvitae
(Thuja 'Green Giant')
Evergreen with a uniform pyramidal shape; grows 3 feet or more a year. Use as hedging or as a single specimen that needs no shearing. Grows 50–60 feet high by 12–20 feet wide; adaptable but prefers moist, well-drained soil and full sun.
These are the showboats of the landscape, whether for their flowers, striking bark, or impressive structure. All offer multiseason appeal.
Clouds of pink flowers open in early spring before leaves appear. Orange-red fall color; shiny, reddish-brown bark. Small, dark, summer fruit attracts birds. Grows 20–30 feet high and wide; likes full sun and moist, well-drained acid to neutral soil.
Sweet bay magnolia
Lustrous dark green leaves with silvery undersides are deciduous in the North, evergreen in the South. Lemon-scented creamy white flowers in spring/early summer. Grows 10–20 feet high and wide in the North, to 60 feet high in the South, where it is happiest. Needs moist, acid soil in sun to partial shade.
'Natchez' crape myrtle
Multistemmed tree with prolific recurring white flowers in late June to September; distinctive exfoliating cinnamon-brown bark year-round. Grows 20–30 feet high by 15–35 wide and works well curbside, where it won't interfere with utility lines. Japanese crape myrtle (L. fauriei) 'Fantasy' with white flowers is especially vigorous and large, stretching 40–50 feet high.