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Best Shade Trees

Fall is for planting. It is probably one of the most popular slogans of the garden center world, and it is true.

Peak fall planting season in our area runs from mid-September until mid-December. This is the most successful time of year for planting trees and shrubs because the environment is the most conducive for establishment and growth of the root system.

The root system is considered the most important part of the plant. Without a healthy, vigorous root system, trees and shrubs are fighting an uphill battle for survival. I am often called to evaluate trees and shrubs that are not doing well. What I have observed is that if the root system is severely damaged or diseased, this type of injury is very difficult, if not impossible, to correct or repair.

Of course, the actual variety of tree or shrub is very important too, but so are a host of other factors. I am constantly recommending varieties for specific characteristics, both visual and internal. But without proper care in the nursery, protected transportation home, correct planting techniques, excellent maintenance after planting, and proper site selection, all the research in the world—finding the No. 1-rated tree on the market and paying top dollar—won’t help it survive.

The big oaks
If you are planning on planting any large shade trees this fall, there are a few I highly recommend. The first is actually a group of plants, the oaks. Within that group, there are a few we do not recommend planting, but the oaks we definitely like are bur oak, Quercus macrocarpa; willow oak, Quercus phellos; and swamp white oak, Quercus bicolor.

These three varieties of oak can grow more than 100 feet tall, although in most urban landscape environments they do not reach quite that tall. All make beautiful shade trees, and while their growth rate is only medium to slow, it is worth the wait. The oaks are typically a very forgiving group, growing successfully in situations that are not always perfect.

Colorful sugar maple
Another beautiful shade tree that often goes overlooked is the sugar maple, Acer saccharum (not to be confused with the awful silver maple, Acer saccharinum). Sugar maple is known for its amazing and consistent fall color and matures to a height of typically just under 100 feet, again slightly shorter in most urban environments. It is considered to have a faster growth habit than the oaks, making it a more popular choice where a shade tree is needed. Sugar maples are harder to find, but worth the effort.

Popular native black gum
Rounding out my top three is my personal favorite, the native black gum, Nyssa sylvatica.

The black gum (not to be confused with sweet gum, Liquidambar styraciflua) is an amazingly beautiful shade tree. In the summer the foliage is a glossy dark green, turning the most stunning scarlet red in autumn. It is the smallest of the group, growing only 50 to 75 feet tall, considered a medium-rate grower, and today is more commonly planted than the sugar maple or the oaks.

Big trees require big spaces, so plant appropriately. If the available area in your front or back yard is 30 feet wide or less, you may not have enough room for one of these big shade trees and should consider selecting something slightly smaller.

Know your space, do your research, and take special steps to ensure the establishment, optimal health, and survivability of our trees and shrubs. I hope you will celebrate this beautiful fall season and plant a tree for future generations in your garden, perhaps planting one for a friend or one in memory of a family member.


by Angie McManus

When should I cut back my peonies? Some of the leaves have dark brown spots on them.

Peonies can look a bit ragged this time of year, but it really is best to leave the foliage until after the first frost arrives. The plant is now storing up food and nutrients essential for next year’s growth and blooms. The longer the foliage has to photosynthesize, the healthier the peony will be. As far as the brown spots on your plant, you should find out what you are dealing with just so you know. When peonies are not planted in ideal situations or if they have poor air circulation, they are more susceptible to fungal problems, including botrytis and other blights. A rainy season can increase fungal problems. If this is the case, you should remove all infected foliage. It should not go into your compost pile but rather with the yard waste. Your county Cooperative Extension Service is a reliable place to take a sample of your peony. The horticulture agent will be helpful in diagnosing the problem and giving you options for treatment and prevention.




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