What makes a fast-growing shade tree exceptional? First, it must be strong-wooded and long lived. Second, it must be attractive, providing desirable seasonal characteristics to make your yard look great. Those that are native, disease resistant, and well-adapted to a given region are also optimal. Finally, they should have minimal messy fruits to reduce the hassle of seasonal clean up.
Bad Fast-Growing Shade Trees
Many popular fast-growing shade trees have serious problems, especially dangerous branch droppers that are weak wooded and split and drop branches (large and small) during wind or ice storms. Silver maple (Acer saccharinum), Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana), and poplars (Populus species), are some of the worst of the branch dropping shade trees, making them both dangerous and expensive.
Others are terribly messy. For example, sweet gums (Liquidambar styraciflua) are elegant, fast-growing native trees with outstanding fall color, but the copious “gum balls” they drop are too messy for most homeowners. There are options for sweet gum lovers though, the cultivar ‘Rotundiloba’ has beautiful gold and burgundy fall color and no fruits. So, in some cases it’s just a matter of searching for the right variety.
Good Fast-Growing Shade Trees
Our top 10 list of fast-growing shade trees contains trees with good attributes, so homeowners can feel confident planting one or more in their yard. With good care, each of these trees can grow more than 24 inches each year, if climate allows. They come in a suite of sizes to fit different landscape settings, but each is strong and beautiful in its own right.
Freeman Maple (Acer x freemanii): With a mature height of 40 to 55 feet and USDA Hardiness Zone range of 3 to 8, Freeman maple is an adaptable shade tree with a broad, spreading canopy and outstanding fall color in various shades of red. It is a cross between the troublesome silver maple and strong-wooded red maple (A. saccharinum x A. rubrum), but has all the good traits of the latter. Try the vibrant cultivar Autumn Blaze®, which turns scarlet-red in fall.
Red Maple (Acer rubrum): This tall, resilient native of eastern North America can reach 40 to 70 feet and survive in Zones 3 to 9. It’s smooth, gray bark looks handsome in winter, and its three-lobed leaves turn shades of red, orange, and gold in fall. For an exceptionally hardy variety (Zone 3) try ‘Northwood’, which sports a rounded canopy and consistent orange-red fall color. Redpointe® is another choice variety with pure red fall color. Red maple is adaptable to moist or dry soils.
Bald Cypress (Taxodium disticum): Though often thought of as a wetland tree, bald cypress also thrives in uplands and average landscape soil. This eastern US native has fast growth, strong wood, and exceptional beauty, making it a winning tree for many homeowners. It’s soft, feathery needles are bright green through the growing season and turn coppery red in fall, forming a natural mulch around the tree’s base. Standard forms can reach 50 to 70 feet and are hardy to Zones 4 to 9, but many shorter cultivated varieties exist for smaller yards, such as the weeping ‘Cascade Falls’ that only reaches 20 feet.
Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus ‘Espresso’): The open, architectural branching of this large, Midwest-native tree lends an elegant look in large landscapes, and grass easily grows beneath it. The tree’s attractive compound leaves turn golden yellow in fall. Each specimen may have male or female flowers, and females produce large, leathery seed pods that can be messy. Thankfully, the male ‘Espresso’ is seedless and has an elegant vase-shaped canopy. Prairie Titan™ is another seedless form with a spreading canopy. This tree will tolerate moist or dry soils and survives in Zones 3 to 8.
Thornless Honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos forma inermis): Wild forms of this widespread North American tree have vicious thorns that radiate from the trunk, but inermis is completely thorn-free. Mature height ranges from 30 to 70 feet, and Zones range from 4 to 10. Trees may have male or female flowers. Female forms develop drooping strands of white, fragrant, bee-pollinated flowers followed by undulating, brown, seed-filled pods. These are messy, so several seedless male forms have been selected, including ‘Suncole’, which has yellow spring and fall foliage, and ‘Moraine’, which has dark green summer leaves that turn gold in fall.
California White Oak (Quercus lobata): The rounded canopy and fast-growing nature of this grand white oak makes it an excellent choice for western landscapes. Mature specimens can reach up to 70 feet and survive in Zones 7 to 11. In fall its deep green turn shades of yellow and orange. This fire-resistant oak is also remarkably drought tolerant and an essential wildlife tree popular for restoration plantings.
Carpathian English Walnut (Juglans regia ‘Carpathian’): This unusually fast-growing walnut reaches 40–60 feet at maturity and has the advantage of bearing delicious English walnuts in the fall. It is hardy to Zones 5 to 9 and develops a large, rounded canopy with age. Plant two or more trees for best nut production. Nuts may be produced in 4 to 8 years after planting.
Golden Rain Tree (Koelreuteria paniculata): Maturing to a sizable 40 feet, golden rain tree offers some of the most spectacular flowers of midsummer. The branches of this East Asian native become covered with large sprays of golden flowers followed by papery seed capsules that look like Japanese lanterns. The fall leaves turn pale yellow. It survives in Zones 5 to 8, but may suffer during periods of high summer heat. Summerburst® is a vigorous selection that is more tolerant of summer heat and has extra glossy leaves.
Japanese Zelkova (Zelkova serrata): This elm relative from East Asia is prized for its adaptability and lovely vase-shaped canopy. It is hardy in Zones 5 to 8 and can reach up to 80 feet when mature. It’s finely toothed leaves turn from deep green to orange yellow in fall. Japanese zelkova will tolerate some drought and grows well in urban settings.
Chinese Scholar Tree (Sophora japonicum): Maturing to a stately height of 50 to 75 feet, Chinese scholar tree is a real beauty that bears drooping clusters of fragrant white flowers in summer that attract bees. Small, beaded pods follow, which are easy to clean. In fall, its compound leaves turn a pleasing shade of yellow. The cultivar Regent® is even faster growing and reaches a more manageable height of 45 feet.
These hardy trees can be planted in spring or fall and may be purchased from nurseries as smaller container-grown plants or larger balled and burlapped specimens. Larger trees initially look better, but they can be slower to establish.
When planting your new tree, dig a planting hole to the same depth as the root ball and three (or more) times as wide. Place the dug backfill on a large tarp or in a wheelbarrow to keep your lawn tidy. (If you have heavy clay soil, you may want to dig the hole a bit deeper for more deep-down amendment, and then bring it back up to the rootball’s depth before planting.)
Amend the back fill with a 1:2 ratio of Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost, and mix it in well. Sprinkle in an all-purpose tree fertilizer, using the manufacturer’s recommendations regarding quantity.
Place the tree in the center of the hole, making sure the top of the rootball meets the soil line of your yard and the tree is straight (first-year staking may be required). Then fill in with the amended backfill. Push the fill in around the edges to make sure there are no air pockets. Water deeply after planting and then add 2 to 3 inches of bark mulch in a circle around the newly planted tree, being sure to keep mulch away from the trunk.
Water your newly planted tree one or two times a week for at least two months. During dry spells, your tree will need supplemental water for at least a year after planting. Then watch it grow and change yearly until it has become the perfect shade-tree for your home’s landscape.