Tough Trees | Midwest Living

Tough Trees

Tips and tricks on how to pick the strongest trees for your yard.

Many trees have a rough life. People stomp on their roots, bump and damage their bark with lawn mowers, pollute their air and cramp their roots with concrete. Not just any tree can take it. But a tree robust enough to withstand these challenges will be a strong performer in your yard.

"No tree is perfect, and there's no such thing as a maintenance-free tree," says Ohio nurseryman Bill Hendricks, who often gives lectures to tree professionals about choosing the best ones. "Still, some trees really are tougher than others," adds Bill, president of Klyn Nurseries in Perry, Ohio, a wholesale company that ships trees to retail stores throughout the Midwest.

Begin finding a tough tree by thinking about its purpose, Bill suggests. Do you want seasonal inter-est, such as colorful leaves for fall color, ornamental bark that will show in winter or flowers in spring? Perhaps you want shade or a windbreak.

Next, Bill says, cross off your list any tree that grows with surface roots or with soft branches that break easily in an ice storm, such as a silver maple. Avoid trees prone to pests or diseases or those such as 'Hopa' crabapples that produce messy fruit.

Check the tree's mature size to make sure it will still fit the space when it's fully grown, and remember to look up! If your planting area has utility wires overhead, choose a tree that will reach less than 20 to 25 feet at maturity. Double-check that the tree you're considering is winter-hardy in your area.

When you shop for your new tree, select one that is structurally sound with a strong central leader and no broken branches. "A tree is a long-term investment," Bill says. "Pick carefully, and you'll be rewarded for many years.'

Top Small Ornamentals

At 30 feet tall or less, these trees add impact that belies their shorter stature.

'Bob White' crabapple (Malus 'Bob White') Crab-apples are some of the easiest and most beautiful trees to grow, if you choose a disease-resistant variety with persistent small fruits that won't make a mess when they fall. Bill likes 'Bob White' for the yellow fruits that "shine like headlights on a cloudy day." If you have room for two crabs, complement 'Bob White' with a disease-resistant, red-fruited type such as 'Prairifire' or 'Sugar Tyme'. Spring is the worst time to shop for a crabapple, because when they're blooming beautifully, your emotions can take over. Instead, select a healthy-looking tree in late summer or early fall. That way, you won't pick a disease-prone variety that drops its leaves by August. Plant in full sun in moist, well-drained, neutral to acid soil. Hardy to Zone 4.

Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) Cold-hardy and drought-tolerant, this tree adapts to conditions throughout the Midwest. This tree boasts red fall foliage and pea-size, blue-black fruits. At 12 to 15 feet tall and up to 12 feet wide, blackhaw viburnum fits well in small landscapes. Flat-topped clusters of creamy flowers emerge in spring, accenting its dark-green foliage. Plant in sun or shade in any type of soil. Zone 3.

Tatarian Maple (Acer tataricum) Where summers are hot, this multi-trunk tree shrugs off the canker disease that often infects its look-alike, the amur maple (Acer ginnala). Tatarian maples grow 20 to 30 feet tall and 15 to 20 feet wide, making a focal point. In autumn, its leaves become a mix of reds and yellows. For two weeks in early July, the tree is covered with samaras: bright scarlet-winged fruits that make the tree appear to be in bloom. Plant in sun or partial shade in any soil. Zone 3.

Peking Lilac (Syringa pekinensis) More trouble-free than the common shrub lilac, Peking lilac doesn't produce suckers, seldom suffers from disease and requires little pruning. Peking lilac also bears showy clusters of pure-white flowers. Beautiful in all seasons, this multi-trunk tree has an upright, arching form and rich-brown, peeling bark that looks great in winter. Peking lilac grows 15 to 20 feet tall and about 15 feet wide. Plant in full sun in any loose, well-drained soil. Allow enough space for good air circulation. Zone 3.

Giant Gray Dogwood (Cornus drummondii) This adaptable native thrives just about any place you plant it. Though it resembles gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa, shown on page 47), giant gray dogwood is easier to maintain as a single-trunk tree because it produces a strong central leader with a minimal number of suckers. Clusters of white flowers in spring are followed by white fruits that stage a long-lasting autumn show. A super-tough tree, it withstands a wide variety of conditions. Plant in sun or shade in any soil. Zone 4.

Large Trees For Shade

Looking for something different in a large shade tree? Add diversity with one of these.

Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica) This tree (shown on first page of article) is uncommon only because its taproot once made transplanting difficult. That problem has been resolved in nursery production. Black gum's autumn color begins with glossy foliage that turns yellow, orange and scarlet. Thirty to 50 feet tall with a pyramidal shape, the slow-grower, also known as sour gum or black tupelo, has a 20- to 30-foot spread. Plant in full sun or partial shade in moist, well-drained, acid soil. Zone 3.

'Autumn Blaze' Freeman maple (Acer x freemanii) 'Autumn Blaze' tolerates pollution and drought. Another plus: It appears to be sterile, which means you won't find sprouted seedlings. This offspring of a red and a silver maple keeps the best features of both parents, including brilliant fall color. Fast-growing and drought-tolerant, 'Autumn Blaze' reaches 50 feet tall, 40 feet wide. Plant in full sun or partial shade in any soil. Zone 3.

Silver Linden (Tilia tomentosa) Among lindens, the silver linden is the star. It's even more tolerant of heat and drought than its cousins, and Japanese beetles and other insect pests tend to ignore it. Reaching 45 feet tall and 35 feet wide, this durable tree survives most ice storms. When the wind blows, you can see the silvery undersides of dark-green leaves. Plant in full sun in well-drained soil. Avoid planting anywhere honeydew from aphids might drip on cars. Zone 3.

Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) A great choice in wet areas that could drown other trees, swamp white oak also withstands drought and heavy clay soil. It reaches 50 to 60 feet tall with a rounded head nearly as wide as it is tall. Fall color may be yellow or reddish-purple. The distinctive light-brown, flaky bark adds nice winter interest. Plant in full sun in neutral to acid soil. Zone 4.

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