Fast-Growing Trees for Midwest Yards
You've heard the saying, "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the second-best time is today." If you're just getting started, there are many fast-growing trees to quickly bring shade, beauty and privacy to your yard. Here are expert picks from Scott Jamieson, Vice President of Bartlett Tree Experts, a national tree care firm with locations throughout the Midwest.
Chinquapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii)
Chinquapin oaks stand out among other oaks for their growth rate and their glossy, coarsely toothed leaves that turn yellow-brown in fall. Native to the Midwest, these durable and adaptive trees perform well in the region's often dry, alkaline soils. Young trees transform from a pyramidal shape to a more rounded one as they age. Mature height: 50-60'; Zone 4.
Tip: Before purchasing and planting, Jamieson recommends having a vision for what the tree will look like in the next five to 10 years. Also consider utility lines and adequate spacing from the house when choosing a location.
Prairie Gold Aspen (Populus tremuloides 'Prairie Gold')
Native to Nebraska, this aspen variety was selected for its adaptability to the heat, drought and humidity of Midwestern prairies, expanding the planting range of this mountain species. The fast-growing tree features creamy gray bark and dark green, triangular leaves that turn golden yellow in fall. The leaves make a nice fluttering or "quaking" sound in the breeze. This tree tends to grow suckers, which can be removed or left to form a colony. Mature height: 40'; Zone 4.
Freeman Maple (Acer x freemanii)
A hybrid of red and silver maple, this vigorous grower combines the best attributes of strong branching and fast growth into a colorful shade tree. Popular cultivars include Autumn Blaze (pictured), Celebration and 'Firefall' (from University of Minnesota). The trees feature smooth, gray bark and brilliant, red-orange leaves in the fall. Plant in full sun. Mature height: 50'; Zone 4.
Crabapple (Malus spp.)
These vigorous ornamental trees are valued in the landscape for their spring blooms in white, pink or red and late summer fruits in yellow or red. They typically reach 15 to 20 feet in height, making them a good choice under utility wires. Look for newer cultivars like 'Adirondack', Royal Raindrops and Firebird that are disease resistant. Crabapples thrive in full sun and grow best in well-drained, slightly acidic soils. Mature height: 15-20'; Zone 4.
Kentucky Coffee Tree (Gymnocladus dioicus)
This large tree is beloved for its intricate compound leaves. They emerge in spring with a bright coppery pink cast, mature to a dark green, then turn bright yellow in fall. Native to the Midwest, the tree bears leathery, reddish-brown seed pods that add interest in winter. For tight spaces, try the columnar 'Skinny Latte' selection. This tree tolerates a wide range of soils. Mature height: 60-70'; Zone 3.
Related: 20 Tough Trees for Midwest Lawns
Sweet Birch (Betula lenta)
Less common than river birch, sweet birch is a fast-growing tree known for its shiny, red-brown bark and exceptional yellow fall foliage. The tree is native to the eastern United States, attracts butterflies and serves as a caterpillar/larval host. Its common name comes from the tree's sweet sap used to make syrups and birch beer. Sweet birch thrives in full sun and moist soil conditions. Mature height: 40-50'; Zone 3.
Related: How to Layer Textures in a Fall Garden for Maximum Visual Interest
Hornbeam is a small hardwood tree in the birch family that can reach 30 feet or be pruned to created a border. New leaves emerge reddish-purple turning dark green then yellow to orange-red in fall. Select the European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), pictured here, for hedging or go with the native species, American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), noted for its distinctive muscular trunk. Hornbeams prefer moist, acidic soil and grow best in partial shade, but will tolerate full sun. Mature height: 20-30'; Zone 3.
Related: An Ohio Landscape Designer Transformed His Yard into an English Garden with a Midwest Twist
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
This fast-growing, multi-stem tree features bell-shaped burgundy flowers that bloom in early spring before its large tropical-like leaves emerge. Plant two trees—a male and female—to enjoy the banana-like fruits in early fall. The trees thrive in part shade in slightly acidic, well-drained soil. Protect young trees from too much sun and wind. Mature height: 15-20'; Zone 5.
Elm Hybrids (Ulmus spp.)
Elms are making a comeback thanks to new hybrids now resistant to the Dutch elm disease that was so devasting to American elms. Many of these hybrids are crosses of American, Asian and European elms, and their characteristics vary widely. Triumph elm (Ulmus 'Morton Glossy') features lustrous dark green foliage that gives way to yellow fall color. Accolade (Ulmus japonica x wilsoniana 'Morton') displays a handsome, vase-shaped canopy with deep green glossy leaves similar to American elms. New Horizon (Ulmus japonica × pumila 'New Horizon') is more upright and oval-shaped with dark green leaves that turn yellow in fall. Plant in moist, well-drained soil; and do not prune elms between April and October.
London Planetree (Platanus x acerifolia)
This hybrid is a cross between the native sycamore and the non-native Asian planetree. Like sycamore, the large shade tree features large leaves, creamy trunk and beautiful peeling bark. 'Exclamation' (from Morton Arboretum) is a tough selection with dark green foliage, upright pyramidal shape and resistance to anthracnose that's problematic for many sycamores. Mature height: 70-100'; Zone 5.
Related: Modern Landscape Design Lessons from the Iconic Miller House Garden
Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)
This showy Midwest native is beloved for its large, heart-shaped leaves and orchid-like spring blooms. The long, interesting seed pods linger through the winter. The tree grows best in full sun and adapts well to tough conditions, like heat and drought. Mature height: 40'; Zone 4.